The History of the Lottery

info Oct 21, 2023

A lottery is a system for distributing money or goods by random selection. Lotteries are often a form of gambling, but they can also distribute everything from units in subsidized housing to kindergarten placements. Even when not a gamble, they can be addictive. Many lottery players spend $50 or more a week on tickets, and the odds of winning are astronomical. Those who do win often find themselves worse off than they were before.

In Cohen’s story, the lottery grew popular in the immediate post-World War II period because it was a way for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. But this arrangement ended in the nineteen-sixties, when population growth and inflation started to outpace state revenue. Suddenly, state governments had to choose between providing a generous social safety net and paying for the cost of a war that was no longer generating American prosperity.

When advocates could no longer sell the lottery as a silver bullet that would float all of a state’s budget, they shifted tactics. Instead of arguing that a lottery would pay for a broad range of government services, they began claiming that it would support a specific line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks. This approach made it easier for voters to see why they should endorse a lottery: It was not, as some people mistakenly believed, a vote for gambling but a vote for veterans or education.