History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine winners. Prizes are often cash or goods. The first recorded lotteries were held in the fifteenth century, in the Low Countries, where towns used them to build town fortifications and to raise money for the poor. The practice spread, eventually reaching England. In the seventeenth century, lottery profits helped pay for the royal navy and other government services.

During colonial America, lotteries were popular for financing public and private projects, including roads, canals, libraries, churches, colleges, and bridges. They also raised funds for wars against the French and Indians. But after the economic boom of the nineteenth century, state governments ran into serious funding problems. In many cases, it became impossible to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services, and voters were generally against either option.

Lottery supporters promoted the concept as a kind of “budget miracle.” They argued that the proceeds would allow states to maintain vital services while avoiding a tax increase. Moreover, they claimed that lotteries were not gambling, but rather a form of education that was good for kids.

Those claims were wildly exaggerated. In fact, Cohen writes, the lottery generated only about five per cent of California’s school-budget revenue in its first year—and less than one percent now. Like all commercial products, lottery sales respond to market fluctuations. They increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates climb. And, as with all advertising, they tend to be most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.