The History of the Lottery

A lotto is a contest in which tokens are distributed or sold and the winning number is chosen by drawing lots. The winner gains a prize, often a sum of money, and the odds of winning are low. In this way, a lottery is different from gambling in that there is no skill involved. In fact, many people do not even know that they are playing a lottery. Despite the fact that there are some psychological implications to playing the lottery, most people do it because they believe that they will eventually win.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with a town record dated 9 May 1445 at Ghent showing that people gathered to draw numbers in order to raise money for town fortifications and the poor. But the lottery grew to its modern form in America, where it became popular at a time when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. During the nineteen-sixties, population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War began to strain state budgets, and it became harder for states to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were unpopular with voters.

One result of this situation was a surge in the popularity of lotteries, which raised enormous sums of money for state projects. Schools, hospitals, and roads were funded through them, and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton received their first tuitions from lotteries. Even the Continental Congress tried to use a lottery to help fund the Revolutionary War, but the gamble ultimately failed.

Cohen argues that the success of the lottery in America was aided by a peculiar political dynamic, which allowed it to avoid some of the taxation challenges that plagued other forms of gambling. The nation was defined politically at that time by its aversion to taxation, and the lottery offered an appealing alternative. It could raise huge amounts of revenue for public purposes while avoiding arousing voter ire, and it did so at no risk to the middle class or the poor.

Lottery is still a popular source of government revenue, but that is only because the lottery continues to play on people’s inextricable desire for instant wealth. The big-ticket jackpots that draw the most attention are key to generating those sales, and they also earn lotteries a windfall of free publicity on newscasts and Web sites. This incentivization is why a huge percentage of the money spent on tickets goes toward the top prize. Those super-sized jackpots are the reason you see lottery billboards on the highway, announcing that a few lucky players will walk away with millions of dollars. In the end, however, most people will never win. But they can always keep trying. And that’s the point.