• Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

The History of the Lottery


Feb 3, 2024

Lottery is the latest chapter in a long story of chance and fate that has shaped the lives of millions of people. The game itself is simple enough: you pay a small amount for a ticket that gives you the chance to win a larger sum of money. Whether you play Powerball or a local state game, your chances of winning are low but the payouts can be huge.

In Cohen’s narrative, the modern lottery began in the nineteen sixties when growing awareness of all the profits to be made from gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Thanks to the Vietnam War, rising inflation, and a growing population, many states were running out of ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

That’s where the lottery came in, a quick and relatively painless way for government to bring in revenue. Lotteries became so popular that, by the eighties, every state had one and most of them operated multiple games.

The first legal lotteries were numbers games, which awarded prizes for correctly guessing a certain number or set of numbers in a given range. The odds were absurdly low, which did not deter players. Numbers games raked in two hundred million dollars, about two billion in today’s currency, in New York alone and were especially popular in poor Black neighborhoods, where the winners could use the prize money to improve their lives.

As defenders of the lottery argued, people were going to gamble anyway, so why not let the government collect the profits? As with all commercial products, however, lotteries were highly responsive to economic fluctuations. Sales increased as unemployment rose and poverty rates climbed, and advertising was most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that were disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.