The History of the Lottery

In the simplest sense, lottery involves purchasing a ticket for a chance to win a prize – usually money. This process relies entirely on chance, so the odds of winning are quite low compared to other forms of gambling such as blackjack.

Historically, lottery has been used to raise money for a wide variety of purposes. For example, in the 15th century, towns in the Low Countries held lotteries to fund town fortifications and to help poor people. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery in 1745 to help finance the purchase of cannons for Philadelphia against the British.

The modern lottery, however, has come to be largely defined by its role as an alternative to raising taxes or cutting public services. As Cohen writes, in the nineteen sixties, when America’s prosperity began to wane under the weight of expanding populations and inflation, many state governments found that balancing their budgets became increasingly difficult without either hiking taxes or cutting services – which both were wildly unpopular with voters.

For politicians facing this dilemma, the lottery seemed like a perfect solution. It could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars – apparently out of thin air – thereby freeing them from having to confront the unpleasant subject of taxation or cutting public services. This dynamic has continued, and it’s why, as Clotfelter and Cook point out, lottery proceeds have consistently won broad popular approval, independent of the actual fiscal health of a state government.