The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery


The odds of winning the lottery are pretty slim, but a lot of people still buy tickets. Some people play out of sheer lust for instant wealth; others are lured in by the idea that they can give their children a better life or help out struggling family members. The state makes sure to advertise the odds and prizes in a way that maximizes sales, whether it’s by putting snazzy new billboards up on the freeway or hawking scratch-offs at check-cashing venues. And state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction; everything about a lottery, from its advertising to the design of the tickets, is geared toward keeping players coming back for more.

Gambling has been around for thousands of years, and lotteries are among the earliest forms of gambling. The Romans used them to give away slaves and property, and the casting of lots is attested to in the Bible for everything from determining kingship to deciding who gets Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. By the 1700s, states were adopting them to raise money for everything from churches to public works.

In early America, lotteries became especially popular because of a deep-seated distrust of taxation. The Continental Congress even tried to use a public lottery to fund the Revolutionary War. Lotteries became a common source of public funds for things like bridges and roads, and they also helped finance Harvard, Yale, and other colleges.

Yet there was always a conflict between the moral and the pragmatic in the public’s attitude toward lotteries. The morality of gambling was never really in doubt, but it was hard to justify an increase in taxes in a time when most people’s incomes were stagnating and the social safety net was so small. Lotteries offered a way to increase state revenue without imposing a large burden on low- and middle-income taxpayers.

The argument went something like this: If people are going to gamble anyway, why not let the government take some of the profits? This argument, which had its limits-by its logic, the state should sell heroin too-didn’t really answer questions about gambling’s harms, but it gave cover to those who favored lotteries for other reasons. For example, many white voters supported legalization because they figured that Black numbers players would pay for services that those voters didn’t want to foot the bill for, such as better schools in the urban areas they had recently fled.

In recent decades, however, the ethos behind lotteries has changed dramatically. State legislatures, backed by the research of economists and psychologists, have developed more sophisticated strategies to keep people buying tickets, from the math used in the games to the look of their advertisements to the design of the scratch-off tickets themselves. In a society that is increasingly divided along racial and class lines, the appeal of the lottery seems to be growing. It offers the prospect of a new class of winners who will sleep paupers one night and wake up millionaires the next.