The History of the Lottery


The lottery is an arrangement in which participants pay for a ticket and have the chance to win prizes in a process that relies solely on chance. The prizes are typically cash or goods. The prize money is usually divided into a portion that goes to the organizers and a larger percentage that, in many cases, goes to winners. This arrangement is not a new idea. The first known lotteries, where participants drew numbers to determine prizes, were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. These were primarily local affairs that raised funds for town fortifications and the poor.

The modern incarnation of the lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when it became clear that states were not going to be able to maintain their postwar prosperity and provide their citizens with an extensive social safety net. The combination of booming population and rising inflation combined with the cost of the Vietnam War to create an environment in which, for many states, it was becoming impossible to balance the budget without either raising taxes or cutting services. The lottery, with its promise of an easy, painless way to raise revenue, seemed like the answer.

Cohen writes that despite the obvious fact that the odds of winning are about one in a million, people continue to play. This is not because they are irrational or don’t understand math; it’s because, in some ways, the lottery offers them a chance to make up for the things they feel they lack in their lives. It’s not an irrational hope, though it may be an unrealistic one.

As the popularity of the lottery grew, some officials began to market it in different ways. They argued that the money raised by the games could be used to cover a specific line item in the state budget, most often education but sometimes elder care or even public works projects. They also made the case that because the lottery is a pure game of chance, it was not a form of gambling and therefore did not require state regulation.

As the lottery grew in popularity, its jackpots became bigger and bigger. The large jackpots are not only lucrative for the companies running the games but also attract the media and the attention of the general public. They are designed to be both newsworthy and attractive, with the hope that the big jackpot will grow even more quickly than the original prize money, leading to a cycle of redraws, publicity and sales.