The History of the Lottery

Info Feb 21, 2024

A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by a process that relies solely on chance. Lotteries may be run by government agencies, charities, or private corporations and can award cash prizes or goods. Lotteries may also be used as a fundraising mechanism to finance public works projects or social welfare programs. Examples include a lottery for kindergarten admission or units in subsidized housing developments, or for a vaccine for a fast-moving disease.

Throughout the fourteen-hundreds, local towns in the Low Countries held lotteries to raise money for town fortifications or to help the poor. By the fifteen-hundreds, this trend had spread to England, where lottery advertisements were printed two years before New Hampshire’s first state lottery in 1964.

Cohen begins by arguing that the modern lottery’s origins were driven not by the allure of gambling but by the need for states to balance budgets. By the late nineteen-sixties, with a growing population and inflation eating away at the federal government’s coffers, the need for state money increased dramatically. To make ends meet, many states raised taxes or cut services, which were unpopular with voters.

Instead, advocates of legalizing a lottery began to sell it as a single line item in the budget that would cover a popular and nonpartisan service, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This narrower argument made it easier to persuade people to support a lottery, because a vote for the lottery did not mean a vote against education or a social safety net.