The History of the Lottery


Across America, people spend billions each year playing the lottery. Many do so for the fun of it, while others believe that winning a jackpot will bring them happiness and prosperity. But the odds are against them. Even if they win, they’re not likely to get the million-dollar jackpot they hope for. The truth is, winning the lottery is more like a dream than a real-life path to wealth.

Lotteries have a long history in the United States. They were used to fund the construction of the nation’s first church buildings, and a number of the world’s most elite universities owe their beginnings to them. But a few hundred years ago, they took on an added dimension, becoming not just a means of raising funds but also a form of social control.

When lotteries were first introduced, they didn’t offer much of a choice: You either paid for the chance to win or you didn’t. The early 1700s saw the development of a few state-run lotteries that allowed participants to buy numbered tickets for an opportunity to win prizes, but there were still limits on who could participate and what types of prize were available.

In the nineteenth century, the popularity of lotteries grew rapidly as states struggled to balance their budgets while offering a wide range of services. Lotteries offered a way to raise money without raising taxes or cutting services, which were both deeply unpopular with voters.

Throughout the history of the modern lottery, states have tried to limit who can play and what kinds of prizes are available. But they’re not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction: Everything about how the lottery is marketed — including its ad campaigns and the math behind its odds — is designed to keep players hooked.

A big part of the appeal of the lottery, especially for the younger generation, is its promise to turn anyone into a multimillionaire. The lottery is an extremely addictive game because of this, and Cohen says it’s no accident that the nineteen-seventies and early eighties saw a decline in financial security for working Americans. They saw their retirement savings shrink, they lost job security and health-care benefits, and the national promise that hard work would yield them a better life dissolved. It was a perfect time for lotteries to become the ultimate pipedream. And they did.