The History of the Lottery
A lottery is an arrangement by which something, usually money or prizes, are distributed among people according to chance. There are several types of lottery, but the one considered here is a public, state-sanctioned event in which payment (often money or property) is made for the opportunity to win a prize.
Lotteries are an interesting and important source of revenue for state governments, as well as a popular form of gambling. They are a convenient way for governments to raise money without the cost and public stigma of raising taxes or cutting essential services. The history of the lottery is a fascinating and often contradictory story. In early America, for example, the Continental Congress used a lottery to try to raise money to fund the Revolutionary War, but in general colonial America was very anti-tax and reliant on lotteries to finance everything from roads and canals to churches and colleges.
In modern times, states run their own lotteries, and people buy tickets for the chance to win a variety of different prizes, including cash, cars, trips, and even houses. The prizes are drawn by chance and the total value of the prize pool is typically the amount remaining after the profit for the promoter, expenses related to promotion, and taxes or other revenues have been deducted from the proceeds of ticket sales.
While many people like to play the lottery for the chance of winning big, others find it addictive and even damaging to their lives. There are a number of studies that suggest that lottery playing can lead to serious problems, including family discord, substance abuse, and debt. It is also important to note that the odds of winning the lottery are very slim, with a much greater probability of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire.
The history of the modern lottery in America began, as Cohen points out, with exigency and the nation’s notoriously tax-averse culture. In the nineteen-sixties, states were facing a financial crisis, mainly as a result of population growth and inflation. Balancing the budget became increasingly difficult without raising taxes or reducing state services, both of which would have been deeply unpopular with voters.
The modern lottery was thus born out of a desperate need to find a solution to this problem. Lotteries were a natural choice because, as Cohen explains, they were both easy to organize and popular with the general public. Moreover, the prevailing theory of economics at the time was that “people will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain,” and therefore it was “better to impose a hidden tax than to renege on an explicit promise.” In fact, this was exactly what happened. As the prize amounts grew, and as the odds of winning a particular prize dwindled, lottery participation rose. By the early nineteen-eighties, almost all fifty states had a state-run lottery. In addition, a number of cities and counties ran their own.