The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a fixture in American life, a form of gambling that people spent upward of $100 billion on in 2021 alone. States promote lotteries as ways to raise revenue, the message being that even if you lose, you’re doing your civic duty by buying a ticket. But just how meaningful that revenue is in the context of overall state budgets and whether or not it’s worth the trade-off to people who end up losing money is debatable.

During the fourteen-hundreds, European lotteries started appearing in Burgundy and Flanders, with towns attempting to raise funds to fortify their defenses and aid the poor. They then spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth chartered the nation’s first lottery in 1567. Tickets cost ten shillings—a sizable sum back then—and, in addition to their prize value, participants were granted immunity from arrest, a significant perk at the time.

Lotteries are a way to determine the distribution of property or slaves, and they’re as old as human civilization. There are records of keno slips going back to the Chinese Han dynasty (205 to 187 BC) and of lotteries used by Roman emperors like Nero to give away property and slaves during Saturnalia parties. The practice also appears in the Bible, where God instructs Moses to divide the land of Israel and determine who will keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion by drawing lots.

In the late nineteen-twenties, lottery advocates began changing their pitch. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections, they argued that, since people were already gambling anyway, governments might as well get in on the profits. It was an appealing argument, but one with limits. As Cohen explains, it allowed many white voters who supported the lottery to justify their support by claiming that state-run gambling would primarily attract Black numbers players, and that those players might end up footing the bill for services that those voters didn’t want to pay for themselves, such as better schools in urban areas.

When the numbers failed to improve in the subsequent decades, the lottery’s proponents resorted to ginned-up arguments about its benefits. Instead of touting it as a silver bullet that could float the entire state budget, they narrowed its scope to a single line item—usually education or veterans’ affairs, but sometimes elder care and public parks. They argued that a vote for the lottery was a vote in favor of those particular services, and that it could help reduce reliance on tax revenue that would ultimately lead to higher taxes.

But the lottery remains a form of gambling, and it has some ugly underbelly. It’s a kind of morally dubious enterprise, a means to win a fortune that depends entirely on chance but that can seem inevitable if you’re a believer. And believing in the chance of winning is an inextricable part of lottery participation. This is why it’s so hard to stop playing. It’s the hope of being able to change your life that keeps you coming back for more.