The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game where numbers are drawn at random to determine a prize. There are several different types of lotteries, including those that award cash prizes, products, and services. The money raised by these games can be used to benefit various causes, such as schools, parks, and community centers. In some cases, the proceeds are donated to charities and veterans’ organizations. In addition, some of the money can be used for research and development. However, some critics say that the lottery is addictive and leads to an unhealthy obsession with wealth. Some people may even lose their home or family because of the obsession with winning big amounts of money.

The first state-run lotteries began in the fourteenth century and were popular in Europe for decades, a time when many governments needed funds to maintain public works and services without raising taxes and risking the wrath of voters. In the seventeenth century, Britain’s first lottery was chartered, and the term “lottery” entered the English language (the word may be a calque on Middle Dutch loterie or Old French lotterie, meaning “action of drawing lots”).

For states facing budget crises in the early nineteen-seventies, Cohen writes, lotteries seemed like magic solutions that allowed them to make revenue appear out of thin air without having to raise taxes. Lotteries were a “budgetary miracle” that enabled politicians to “keep their spending in check and their voters happy.”

In a country defined politically by its aversion to taxation, lotteries proved an appealing alternative to paying for governmental needs. Governments and licensed promoters sold tickets to fund a range of projects, from building a church to supplying a battery of guns for the defense of a city. The Continental Congress even attempted to use a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War. Privately organized lotteries also helped fund American colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton.

Ultimately, Cohen argues, the lottery became the emblem of a national ethos that was built on the assumption that anyone who worked hard and played by the rules could become rich. But as our economy shifted in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, income disparity widened, job security and pensions declined, health-care costs climbed, and the national promise that children would be better off than their parents ceased to hold true for many families.

The lottery, with its mystical odds of becoming a millionaire and its alluring glamour, became a potent symbol of this changed reality. For millions, the lottery became an obsession with unimaginable wealth, and for some, it proved a disastrous path. In the end, the lottery is a gamble on dreams that have no guarantees and often leave winners worse off than they were before. It’s no surprise that so many Americans want to win.