The History of the Lottery


In a lottery, people pay for a chance to win a prize by matching numbers that are randomly spit out by a machine. They’re more likely to get struck by lightning or die in a car crash than to win, but many people still believe that they will be the lucky one who gets rich. Lotteries can be played for anything from units in a subsidized housing development to kindergarten placements at a public school. They can also be used for commercial promotions that offer free products or property or as a way to select jury members.

Cohen, who teaches at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, examines the modern history of the lottery and how it has become the “primary source of revenue for state government,” adding that “the early American tradition was that states could grow their social safety net without imposing especially burdensome taxes on working-class citizens.” That arrangement ran aground in the nineteen sixties when inflation, population growth, and the cost of the Vietnam War made balancing budgets difficult. In search of solutions that would not enrage an increasingly antitax electorate, a growing number of states turned to the lottery.

The early American lotteries were often private and aimed at raising money for specific projects or public institutions, such as churches or colleges. The Continental Congress held a lottery to help fund the Revolutionary War, and other public lotteries helped finance Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College. In modern times, state lotteries can be found in virtually every jurisdiction and are often promoted as a “voluntary tax” to generate funds for everything from public works to health care.