The Hidden History of the Lottery


A game where people buy numbered tickets, and prizes are awarded to those who match randomly selected numbers. Lotteries are often used by governments and charities to raise funds. They can also be considered a form of gambling, although the odds of winning are far smaller than in traditional casino games. The word lottery comes from the Latin lotteria, meaning “drawing lots,” which in turn derives from the Old English hlot, or “fate selection” (the casting of lots was also used to determine Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion).

Lottery winners can receive their prize in a lump sum, which means they have immediate access to all the money they won—but it also requires disciplined financial management to ensure long-term security. Choosing to receive their winnings in this way can be beneficial for those who need the funds for debt clearance, investment, or significant purchases. But the large lump sum also presents a danger: Without careful planning, it is easy for a sudden windfall to disappear into a chasm of unaffordable lifestyles.

As a result, many state governments have taken advantage of the popularity of lottery games by running high-profile campaigns in which they claim that lottery proceeds are helping to pay for education or other public services. But these claims are often inflated: In California, for example, lottery proceeds account for less than one per cent of total K-12 funding. The true reason these campaigns are so effective, Cohen argues, is that they rely on the same tactics that marketers of addictive products employ: everything from the look of the tickets to the math behind them is designed to keep people hooked.

The modern lottery, which was first introduced in the nineteen-sixties, came about when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Amid soaring population and inflation, the cost of war, and the expansion of welfare programs, it became difficult for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. In order to avoid such a fate, New Hampshire and thirteen other states adopted lotteries to raise money.

These campaigns were successful because they played on Americans’ natural aversion to paying taxes, as well as their fear of government-run institutions. But Cohen argues that the real driver of lotteries’ success was a deeper, more fundamental change in America: from the nineteen-seventies onward, a widening income gap, an erosion of job security and pensions, increasing health-care costs, and rising unemployment combined to render the old national promise—that hard work would guarantee everyone a good life—unsustainable.

The ubiquity of the lottery shows that, for millions of Americans, dreams of wealth and affluence now outweigh fears of poverty or governmental corruption. For them, the lottery is a kind of fantasy economy in which the rules are rigged in their favor—even if they don’t win. The rest of us, however, face much more complicated challenges. Our own version of the lottery may not provide a fairy tale ending, but we still need to play.

Categories: Gambling