The History of the Lottery


In a lottery, participants pay to enter a contest that awards prizes based on a process of chance. It is a form of gambling that most states ban, but many promote and regulate. Prizes are typically cash or goods, but may also be services such as subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. Most state-sponsored lotteries involve purchasing a ticket for a set of numbers, or in some cases a group of words or symbols, which are drawn at random by a machine. The chances of winning vary depending on the size of the prize pool and how many numbers or words match those that are randomly drawn.

The word lottery has its roots in Old English hlot “object used to allocate someone’s share” (anything from dice to wooden blocks), but the modern game dates only to the nineteenth century. The first state-run lottery was launched in New Hampshire in 1964, and was followed by 13 more in the next few years. In the late nineteen-sixties, as America grappled with population growth, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, state budgets began to strain and legislators faced the choice of raising taxes or cutting programs. The latter option was deeply unpopular with voters, and so state politicians turned to the lottery as an alternative source of revenue.

To be legitimate, a lottery must be organized and conducted by a government agency with a set of rules defining how the prizes are awarded and when they are drawn. It must also establish the frequency and sizes of prizes, and how much of the pool is deducted for organizing and promoting the lottery. Finally, it must decide whether to offer a few large prizes or many smaller ones. The latter is more popular with potential bettors, but it will also increase the number of tickets sold and erode the prize pool.

In his book, Cohen recounts how the modern lottery grew out of this political crisis, arguing that the success of early lotteries was due to the fact that they responded to economic changes in a way that traditional taxes could not. As an example, he cites that lottery sales increase when unemployment and poverty rates rise. In addition, he says that lottery advertising is heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or black. The resulting public spending can thus help cushion the impact of recessionary economic cycles.