The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay money to have a chance to win a prize, usually cash or goods. The winners are selected through random selection. Modern lotteries are typically run for prizes that are deemed to benefit the public. For example, a lottery might be used to allocate units in a subsidized housing block or to select kindergarten placements at a public school. In addition to the common financial lottery, other types of lottery include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of members of a jury by a random process.

In the nineteen-sixties, state governments found themselves struggling to balance budgets in the face of soaring population growth and inflation, increased demand for welfare programs, and the costs of the Vietnam War. For many states, which had a long tradition of providing generous social safety nets, raising taxes or cutting services was an unpopular option with voters. In this environment, state officials turned to the lottery for a solution.

Advocates of the lottery argued that, since gamblers were going to play anyway, the government might as well collect the profits and use them for public purposes. They dismissed moral objections that the money was going to be used to fund vice and other immoral activities. This argument had its limits, however. For example, it did not convince black voters who supported the lottery because they believed that the profits would be used to help their community.

Cohen argues that the success of the lottery was partly due to its ability to elicit high levels of satisfaction with the prize. In other words, the lottery satisfies a psychological desire for instant wealth and the meritocratic belief that everyone is going to get rich one day. Moreover, the high prize values were seen as a way to help the poorest people in society and to improve the lives of the working class.

The lottery also generated a great deal of publicity. It was advertised on television, in magazines, and on billboards along the highways. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of all adults in the United States play the lottery at least once a year.

The fact that the lottery does not appear to be subject to any of the traditional economic constraints on gambling is a strong argument in favor of its legalization. However, it is important to note that the objective fiscal conditions of a state do not seem to have much bearing on whether or when a state adopts a lottery. Lotteries continue to win broad public approval even in states with comparatively good fiscal health. In fact, it is quite possible that the main reason for a lottery’s popularity is its ability to generate significant revenue without raising taxes.