The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling wherein people purchase “lots” in the hope of winning a prize. Unlike most forms of gambling, which often involve skill, the lottery is purely a game of chance. It is run so that every lot has an equal chance of winning. However, the odds of winning are overwhelmingly low. The average person’s chances of winning the jackpot in a large lottery are about one in three million.

Aside from a handful of small prizes that can be won by purchasing multiple tickets, all prizes in a lottery are awarded through a process that relies wholly on chance. The cost of organizing and promoting the lottery must be deducted from the pool of money available for prizes. Also, a certain percentage of the total pool goes as revenues and profits to the organizers or sponsors. The remaining amount is then distributed as prizes to the winners.

Lotteries have a long history, and they have been used in many countries and in the United States for both public and private ventures. During colonial America, lotteries played an important role in financing both the settlement of the colonies and public works projects such as paving streets and building wharves. They also raised funds for churches, libraries, and colleges, including Harvard and Yale. George Washington even sponsored a lottery in 1768 to help build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

During the late nineteen-sixties, as the nation’s prosperity began to falter due to rising inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War, state budgets came under increasing strain. For lawmakers, Cohen writes, balancing the budget meant either raising taxes or cutting services—both of which would be highly unpopular with voters. Lotteries offered a way to raise revenue without increasing taxes or cutting services, and politicians quickly adopted the practice.

In the early twenty-first century, state-run lotteries are still very popular. According to Cohen, this is because people have come to perceive them as a safe, low-risk way to invest a little bit of money in order to win millions of dollars. This perception is largely false, however, and it obscures the fact that lottery players as a group contribute billions to government coffers that could be going toward things like retirement savings or college tuition.

The lottery has a reputation for being fun, and it certainly can be; but it is also a dangerous way to spend your hard-earned dollars. It’s time for the public to recognize that the game has serious flaws, and that there are better ways to support our schools and other vital public services. If the lottery is a must, let’s at least make sure it’s fair. And that means lowering the jackpots and increasing the frequency of smaller prizes. Otherwise, it will just be another expensive, regressive game in which the winners are the wealthy and the rest of us get to pay for it.