The History of the Lottery


In a small village in northern Illinois, an annual lottery is being held. The villagers are gathered under the gazebo in the central square, with their children, to participate in the ritual. In addition to ensuring a bountiful harvest, the lottery is supposed to bring good fortune to the community. In the background, the sound of church bells tolls as a priest blesses the occasion. The prizes for the lottery are not the only things that change in this small town, but the ritual itself has remained the same since the 1700s.

The casting of lots has a long record in human history; it’s used for everything from selecting the next Roman Emperor (Nero was a great fan) to divining God’s will. But lotteries as a means of raising money for public projects are much more recent. The first recorded ones were in the fifteenth century, when towns in the Low Countries used them to build town fortifications and give charity to the poor.

State lotteries sprang up during the nineteen-sixties, when public awareness of all the money to be made in gambling came into conflict with an ongoing crisis in state finances. With a growing population and the rising costs of inflation and war, many states found it hard to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services—both options were extremely unpopular with voters.

Those who advocated for state-run lotteries argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well take some of the profits. This argument, writes Cohen, was a moral cover for those who approved of lotteries in spite of their social costs.

In its modern form, the lottery is a complex affair, with prizes ranging from cash to a new car. The prize pool is usually a percentage of ticket sales, with a further percentage taken for organizing and promoting the contest. The remaining percentage is then available for the winners. Potential bettors are attracted to large prizes, and ticket sales increase dramatically when the jackpot carries over from one drawing to the next. But the majority of ticket holders seem to prefer a mix of smaller prizes.

In the United States, most people over the age of 18 play the lottery at least once a year. The proportion of people who play is highest among those in their twenties and thirties, at around 70%; it declines to two-thirds for those in their forties, fifties, and sixties, and 45% for those over 70. Men are more likely to play than women. Nevertheless, lottery playing can be problematic in several ways, including its effects on mental health and addiction. Research suggests that it can also have adverse economic and social consequences for some groups, including minorities and the poor. The article by Rachel Kohn and David Wallis in this issue examines these issues, as well as the underlying psychology behind lottery behavior. It’s a must read.

Categories: Gambling