The History of the Lottery

Lotteries are games of chance. People buy tickets to win money or other prizes, and a few lucky winners will become rich. But the odds of winning are very low, and even a single ticket costs something. And when the government is involved, the cost of the lottery goes beyond the prizes won. It also takes taxes paid by the players and money spent on marketing and promotion. In addition, it takes a large chunk of the total income of the state or country.

Lottery has a long history, going back thousands of years to the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and throughout the Bible, where lots were used for everything from choosing the next king to deciding who got to keep Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion. But they were first popular in Europe during the fourteen-hundreds, when they were used to fund town fortifications and other public works projects. And when the practice spread to America, it did so despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

In the early years of American settlement, European-style lotteries were popular in England and the colonies, bringing in huge sums to finance everything from civil defense to church construction. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to pay for the Revolutionary War. Privately organized lotteries were also common. In fact, the Boston Mercantile Journal reported that some 420 had been held in eight states the previous year.

During the late nineteen-seventies and eighties, though, the popularity of lotteries coincided with a steep decline in financial security for many working Americans. The gap between rich and poor widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the national promise that education and hard work would make people better off than their parents became increasingly out of reach. In this context, the lottery’s appeal grew even stronger.

By the time the twenty-first century arrived, states were legalizing the lottery at a dizzying pace. And if the prospect of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot didn’t do the trick, advocates could always invoke a line item in the state budget that most people believed was popular and nonpartisan—education, elder care, public parks, aid to veterans, and so on.

The argument went like this: Lotteries weren’t a tax, but since people were going to gamble anyway—and most of them wouldn’t do it for charity—the state might as well pocket the profits. This logic did have its limits—one might as well argue that governments should sell heroin—but it gave ethical cover to people who approved of the practice for other reasons. This was particularly true of white voters, who argued that the profits from Black numbers would help pay for services they didn’t want to foot the bill for, such as improved schools in urban areas. As a result, whites were willing to tolerate racial exploitation as a condition of supporting state-run gambling. The truth, however, is that this arrangement exploits the psychology of addiction just as much as tobacco ads or video-game manufacturers do.