The History of the Lottery


A contest based on chance in which numbers are drawn and prizes awarded to those who hold tickets. Prizes are usually money, goods, services, or land. Lotteries are a common form of gambling and are often used to raise money for public works. They have been around for centuries, and their roots can be traced to ancient practices like the drawing of lots as a means of decision-making or divination. In colonial America, the lottery was an important source of funding for roads, libraries, churches, canals, bridges, and colleges.

The modern lottery arose, Cohen writes, in the nineteen-sixties as states struggled to balance budgets that had expanded with the nation’s postwar prosperity. With inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, it became difficult for many states to keep up without raising taxes or cutting services. But tax increases were wildly unpopular with voters, and state officials began looking around for alternatives.

The answer they settled on was the lottery, which seemed to offer an opportunity for people to win a lot of money with relatively little effort. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections (Nero was a fan of the Roman lottery), lottery proponents argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, government might as well collect the profits. And they were right: lottery revenues quickly surpassed those from income taxes.