The History of Lottery

Gambling Oct 26, 2023

Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine the prize winner. The word lottery derives from the Old English verb loterian, which itself is likely a calque of the Middle Dutch word loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots” or “act of giving away.” Other forms of lottery exist outside of gambling, including military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away through a random process, and the selection of jury members. For lottery to qualify as a gambling activity, however, payment must be made in exchange for the chance to win.

Despite the low probability of winning, many people still spend large sums of money on tickets. In the United States, Americans spend over $80 billion on lottery tickets each year. While this is a small amount of the country’s economy, it is a significant amount for individuals. This spending could be better used to pay off debt, create an emergency fund, or invest in stocks.

In the 1740s, colonial America’s public lotteries helped finance a number of major projects, such as canals, roads, bridges, and colleges. In fact, Columbia and Princeton were founded through a lottery. These public lotteries also helped fund the Continental Congress and armed the colonial militias during the American Revolution. In addition, they contributed to the settlement of the West.

While public lotteries fueled the growth of the colonies, they also had some troubling undertones. Among other things, they were tangled up with the slave trade. In some cases, the prizes of public lotteries included human beings. Nevertheless, a few enslaved people, such as Denmark Vesey, bought their freedom through the lottery and went on to foment slave rebellions.

Although Cohen nods to early history, he focuses on the modern incarnation of the lottery. This development began in the nineteen-sixties as a growing awareness of the profits to be had from gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. A combination of demographic change and rising inflation rendered a number of states’ social safety nets unsustainable without either raising taxes or cutting services, an approach that was deeply unpopular with voters.

Instead, advocates of legalized lotteries began to argue that the proceeds would cover a single line item, invariably a government service that was popular and nonpartisan—most often education but sometimes elder care or parks or aid for veterans. This narrower pitch made it easier to convince voters that supporting the lottery was not a vote for gambling but a vote for the service in question. As a result, state-run lotteries took hold in New Hampshire and the rest of the Northeast and Rust Belt in the late twentieth century.