The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which people try to win money by matching a series of numbers or symbols. Its roots stretch back centuries; the Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of Israel and divide its land by lot, and Roman emperors used it to give away slaves and property. It spread to England and then the American colonies, where, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, it became a popular form of public revenue. In the nineteen-seventies, however, America’s lust for lottery winnings coincided with a collapse in the financial security of most working people. Incomes sank, pensions shrank, health-care costs climbed, and the national promise that hard work would lead to a comfortable retirement disappeared.

As a result, state lotteries were promoted as a way to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. This argument proved popular with white voters, and in the 1980s, a number of states legalized lotteries.

Cohen’s book is a rich and provocative history of this development. It begins with a nod to the history of lotteries—a common feature of early European townships, which used them as a substitute for taxation—and then jumps to the seventeenth century, when John Hancock ran a lottery to raise money for Boston’s Faneuil Hall and George Washington held one to help finance a road across Virginia’s mountain passes.

In modern times, lottery is everywhere. You can buy tickets at gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores, and discount outlets. There are scratch-off games, Powerball tickets, and Mega Millions at the Dollar General, along with dozens of other varieties of state and local lotteries. But, despite all this proliferation, the odds of winning are slim to none, and most players are not getting rich.

The reason for this is that the lottery draws on a core group of players, who are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite, and who spend $50 to $100 a week on tickets. It’s this player base that has helped propel lottery sales, and the profits that flow to state coffers.

To appeal to these low-income voters, state lottery marketers began to emphasize that the proceeds were used for a single line item—invariably education but sometimes veterans’ benefits, public parks, or elder care. This approach dispensed with long-held ethical objections to state-run gambling and gave approval to lotteries that had previously been relegated to the fringes of political debate.

But, as the authors of “Lottery in June” demonstrate, lottery profits don’t necessarily go toward education, parks, or even roads. Most of it ends up in the pockets of the ticket buyers themselves, who feel a sense of moral duty to support their local government by buying a few scratch-offs. As a consequence, lottery advertising often promotes the message that you should feel good about yourself if you play—even if you lose. This is an appealing argument, but it’s wrong. It’s no different from the marketing tactics of tobacco companies or video-game makers.