The History of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine ownership and other rights has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. But the lottery, in which prizes are awarded by chance to people who pay consideration for a ticket, is of more recent origin. Its emergence in modern America, Cohen argues, came when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. At a time of swelling population and rising inflation, many states found themselves in a position where they would have to cut public services or raise taxes, both of which are highly unpopular with voters.

The lottery quickly became a popular method for raising funds, and it spread rapidly in America as well as abroad. By the late 1960s, all but four states had some kind of lotteries. The growth pattern was accelerated by the needs of struggling state governments to finance large-scale projects without increasing taxes and by the fact that New Englanders were particularly fond of gambling.

Despite the widespread popularity of the lottery, it is not for everyone. The poor tend to play less than the rich, and their participation rates decline with age. And while people in wealthier households are more likely to play the lottery, they also spend much less of their incomes on tickets. People who make more than fifty thousand dollars per year on average spend one percent of their annual income on the lottery; those making less than thirty-five thousand dollars spend thirteen percent.