The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a simple game in which players pay to buy a ticket with a set of numbers, then hope that those numbers will be drawn in a drawing. Prizes are awarded to those who match winning combinations. It has been a popular form of entertainment since ancient times. In fact, the Old Testament contains dozens of references to lottery games, and the Romans used them to give away slaves and property during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were also a feature of public events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where they played an important role in funding infrastructure and even education.

Defenders of state-run gambling often argue that if people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. But this argument has its limits. First, it doesn’t account for the fact that most lottery participants are poor or black, and if you’re going to tax people for something they don’t want to do, you’ll have trouble convincing them to pay for other things they do want the government to do. Second, it fails to recognize that lottery revenues are not just a way to raise money for general services but that they’re also a way of subsidizing a particular kind of gambling, one that targets low-income and minority neighborhoods and makes the poor much more likely to play.

In America, lotteries spread rapidly after 1744, when the Continental Congress approved a plan to use them to fund the war with Britain. They became a common source of private and public capital, helping to finance roads, canals, churches, schools, colleges, libraries, and other civic infrastructure. The foundation of Columbia and Princeton universities, for example, was partly funded by lotteries. Privately organized lotteries were also popular, with the Boston Mercantile Journal reporting in 1832 that more than 200 had been sanctioned between 1744 and that year.

By the late nineteen-seventies, as America’s economic security began to disintegrate, interest in the lottery grew. The fabled national promise that hard work would make you better off than your parents had become an unfulfilled fantasy. In the wake of that collapse, many people sought solace in the dream of a multimillion-dollar jackpot.

Advocates of the lottery adapted their message to reflect this reality. Instead of arguing that a statewide lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they began to focus on a single line item—often education but sometimes elder care or public parks—that was a top priority for voters. This approach obscured the lottery’s regressive character and made it easier to persuade voters to approve it. But it was a dangerous illusion. In the end, it did not help working families get through an era in which their incomes declined, health-care costs rose, and pensions and job security vanished. It also contributed to the growing divide between rich and poor in American society.