The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for prizes. It is not just a simple gambling system; there are people behind the scenes designing scratch-off games, recording live drawing events, running the websites and helping players after big wins. These workers need to be paid, and so a portion of each ticket is used for overhead. Lottery is not just a gamble, but a sophisticated system that entices millions of people with promises of instant riches.

In the fourteen-hundreds, Lottery began to take shape in the Low Countries, where towns used it to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. It then spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567.

By the nineteen-sixties, as soaring inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War began to drain America’s coffers, state governments were finding it harder to provide their citizens with a wide array of services without raising taxes or cutting service. In an effort to fill the void, many states turned to the lottery.

Lottery, Cohen argues, repackaged gambling as a civic duty, a way for people to do their part to fund the public good by pledging a modest amount of their incomes in return for the possibility of winning a large sum. This approach, coded in a variety of ways—the notion that a small gamble is a harmless pastime; the idea that lottery proceeds benefit disadvantaged children or veterans; and the implication that playing the lottery is something that “everybody” does—obscures its regressivity, making it appear to be an honest and legitimate source of state revenue.