The History of the Lottery

Lottery is a popular pastime in which participants have the chance to win a large sum of money based on a random event. The odds of winning vary between games, but they are often so low that a ticket is a reasonable purchase for people who otherwise would not gamble. In the United States, lottery sales have skyrocketed in recent decades, and the large jackpots have drawn more people to play. But these mega-jackpots obscure the regressiveness of the lottery: Even if someone only buys one or two tickets per week, they contribute billions to government receipts that could have gone toward retirement, college tuition, or something else.

Historically, lotteries have been used for a variety of purposes, including to award land and slaves in the Roman Empire. They also were common during the early colonial period in America, where they played a role in financing churches, colleges, canals, and roads. Regardless of their origins, they have always been controversial.

In the immediate postwar era, advocates of legalized gambling argued that state-run lotteries could fund whole categories of governmental services without increasing taxes. They said that they were a kind of budgetary miracle, an easy way for states to create revenue out of thin air and avoid offending their anti-tax electorates. Those arguments proved persuasive. As Cohen writes, the popularity of the lottery grew as states searched for ways to maintain existing services without infuriating voters and without raising their already high rates of income or consumption tax.