The History of the Lottery

In a lottery, participants pay money for tickets and are awarded prizes if enough of their numbers match those drawn by machines. The practice began in the fourteen hundredths, and it is recorded as occurring in towns across the Low Countries to raise funds for town fortifications, and later to provide charity for the poor.

A lottery is a gamble, and people who play one know that their odds are slim. But there is more to it than that: Lottery advertising offers the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. The winnings can help a person pay off debt, set up college savings, and diversify their investments. But it is also easy to find cautionary tales of lottery winners who become depressed, alcoholic, or even suicidal when their luck runs out.

Cohen argues that lottery popularity grew in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, which coincided with declines in financial security for working people. Income inequality widened, jobs were insecure, and pensions were eroded. Meanwhile, the federal government shifted more and more responsibilities to states, which turned to the lottery for revenue.

In the beginning, it seemed as if the more difficult the odds were, the more people wanted to play. That was counterintuitive, but it was true. It is why, for example, some state lotteries increased the number of balls on a roll to decrease the odds.