The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which people pay a small amount of money to be matched against others for prizes that are completely unpredictable. In modern society this takes place in a variety of ways, from a chance to get a spot on a subsidized housing block to a chance to win a scholarship at an elite university. In the United States, 44 of the 50 states now run lotteries; the six that don’t are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada, which all allow gambling, and New Hampshire, which doesn’t want a state government to compete with its casinos.

Lotteries have a long history in the human race. They date to ancient times, with examples in the Bible, and they were common in the Roman Empire, where they were used for everything from determining kings to distributing food during Saturnalia festivities. But the first lottery with prize money was held in the fourteen-hundreds in Bruges, Belgium, and it was meant to raise funds for town repairs.

Since then, virtually every state has embraced the lottery, and Cohen explains how the movement started in the nineteen-sixties, when rising awareness of all the money to be made by the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Inflation, population growth, and the costs of the Vietnam War had reduced America’s prosperity, and many state governments were facing either higher taxes or slashed services. Adding a lottery seemed like an easy, painless way to raise funds.