The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize. Prizes may be money, goods, services, or even houses. Modern lotteries typically feature a public monopoly and are run by state agencies, although privately organized private lotteries also exist. In the United States, a state-regulated lottery is operated by 37 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the early days of American lotteries, the prizes were small; today’s prizes are much larger.

Despite the fact that people can’t control whether they will ever win, state lotteries are a major source of funding for many state government programs. This is because state lotteries can raise large sums of money relatively cheaply. In a world of shrinking federal grants and declining local taxes, state lotteries can provide crucial revenue for such services as public safety and education.

For some people, winning the lottery is an inextricable part of their life. For others, however, it is a source of deep disappointment and desperation. In the last category are people who play lotteries regularly but who realize their chances of winning are very low. Still, they continue to play, believing that they have a sliver of hope that they will be the one lucky winner.

The history of the lottery is complex and, as Cohen explains, the state lotteries in the United States are particularly interesting. They began, he writes, in the northeastern states that offered generous social safety nets, where budget problems became acute as the economy began to falter in the nineteen-sixties. As inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War accelerated, balancing state budgets became difficult without raising taxes or cutting programs, both unpopular with voters.

In the face of this fiscal crisis, New Hampshire introduced a state lottery in 1964. Inspired by the success of this move, other states soon followed. The resulting lotteries typically follow similar patterns: They start with a monopoly; a state agency or public corporation runs the lottery, as opposed to licensing a private company in return for a cut of profits; and they begin operations with a small number of modest games. Initially, revenues grow quickly, but eventually they level off or even decline, prompting the lottery to introduce new games in an effort to maintain or increase revenues.

Defenders of the lottery argue that, because people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well benefit from their efforts. But Cohen argues that this argument is flawed. He demonstrates that lottery sales are sensitive to economic fluctuations, and that lotteries tend to promote their products in poor neighborhoods that are disproportionately Black or Latino. This strategy provides moral cover for white voters who approve of state-run gambling because they think that Black numbers players will foot the bill for the services those voters oppose, such as improved schools in their neighborhoods.