The History of the Lottery


Lotteries have been around a long time. They were used in the Roman Empire as party games during Saturnalia, where guests would receive tickets that were then drawn. The prizes, which usually included fancy dinnerware, were meant to ensure that every guest left the festivities with something. Later, the lottery was a common way to raise funds for public works.

Cohen traces the modern lottery’s rise to the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money that could be made in gambling, combined with state budget crises, prompted many states to approve the sale of state-run games. The new advocates of lotteries dismissed ethical objections by arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well pocket some of the profits. They also argued that a lottery, unlike heroin or other illegal drugs, was harmless and promoted responsible gambling.

Those arguments were persuasive. In the end, though, it was an issue of supply and demand that drove the popularity of lottery games. As the number of working-class families grew, so did their need for income. The lottery allowed them to dream about a future in which their children might have more opportunities than they had, and it gave them an easy way to buy hope.

Today’s lottery draws millions of customers a week, with jackpots that can reach eye-popping amounts that draw attention from news broadcasts and websites. It’s a business model that isn’t all that different from the tactics of video-game companies, which use flashy ads and mathematically calculated probabilities to keep people hooked. It’s a model that has been proven to be effective in the long run.

In the United States, state-run lotteries now generate about a billion dollars per year. They are a hugely profitable industry that is not only fueled by the psychology of addiction, but by the desire of many Americans for unimaginable wealth. In the years after World War II, a national belief that hard work and education would guarantee financial security for working class families came to a screeching halt. Incomes fell, pensions dwindled, health-care costs skyrocketed, and the enduring American promise that you can make it on your own ceased to exist for most people.

Those who play the lottery know that their odds of winning are long, but they keep buying tickets because it’s a form of self-medication. They may have quote-unquote systems, like a lucky number or a special store, or they may follow a system of picking their numbers, but they all have one thing in common: they’ve come to believe that the lottery is their last, best, or only chance at a better life. And that’s just fine with the people who run the games. They are not above using the same tricks that tobacco or video-game companies do to keep the customers coming back.