The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a method of raising funds for a project by selling tickets with numbers on them. The numbers are drawn by chance and the people who have those numbers on their tickets win prizes. The idea of drawing lots for a variety of purposes has a long history in many cultures, and is a feature of many religions.

In the early fourteen-hundreds, for example, the Low Countries used lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. They also spread to England, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. And, in America, they became a tool of state government.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery was born when growing awareness of the profits to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With population growth and inflation soaring, and the cost of running wars and social safety nets skyrocketing, state governments found themselves in the impossible position of trying to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

Lotteries seemed to be a safe way to raise money, and the public was quick to take advantage of them. By the late nineteen-sixties, thirteen states—including New Hampshire, which has always been a tax averse place—had adopted them.

Lottery advocates often argue that the public doesn’t understand how unlikely it is to win and that they enjoy the game anyway. But that’s not entirely true. People who play the lottery spend far more than they can afford to lose, and they tend to buy more tickets when incomes fall or unemployment rises. And, as with all commercial products, lottery advertisements target neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or Black or Latino.