The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. People buy tickets in order to win a prize, which is usually cash. It is a popular form of gambling, with millions of people participating in state lotteries each week. Some of the money raised is used to help with education, public parks, or aid for veterans. While some critics argue that the lottery is a form of hidden tax, others say it provides a harmless way for people to relax and dream.

A large percentage of the public supports lottery gambling, according to a Gallup poll. But many states prohibit or restrict its use. In those states where it is legal, the lottery is the most popular form of gambling. It is estimated that more than half of all Americans have bought a ticket in the past year.

The lottery is one of the oldest forms of gambling, dating back centuries. It was used in the Old Testament to divide land among God’s people and in the Roman empire for slaves and property. In the modern world, lottery games are widespread and run by private companies as well as governments. There are even sports lotteries, where players can choose a draft pick for their favorite team.

In colonial America, the lottery was a common method of financing both private and public ventures. It helped finance roads, canals, libraries, and churches. It also provided a steady flow of capital for colleges and the militia. But, as Cohen points out, the lotteries were often tangled up in the slave trade and, in some cases, had a negative impact on it. For example, George Washington managed a lottery that included human beings as prizes, and Denmark Vesey won a lottery in South Carolina and then went on to foment a slave rebellion.

By the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, a growing awareness of the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With an increasing population and inflation eroding state revenue, balancing budgets became increasingly difficult. Raising taxes or cutting services would be unpopular with voters, so politicians turned to the lottery for a solution. They marketed lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” the chance for states to make money appear seemingly out of thin air without a major tax increase.

But as the economy slowed and state revenues shrank, lottery advocates had to shift their message. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float the entire state’s budget, they began to claim that it would fund a specific line item—invariably, a government service that was popular and nonpartisan, such as education or public parks. This narrower argument made legalization seem like a no-brainer to most voters.

But even when the odds of winning are a million to one, people continue to play the lottery. For some reason, we have a hard time accepting that the lottery is not truly random. Nonetheless, we believe that the results of the lottery are unbiased because the colors on the graph show roughly similar counts for each application row and column.