The Hidden History of the Lottery


Lotteries are a peculiar form of gambling. You guess a set of numbers, and you can win cash prizes or goods. They are usually very low risk, and they can be played by nearly anyone for a few dollars. But their ubiquity obscures a fundamental fact: They are, at best, regressive, and they can cause significant harm to people’s lives.

The word lottery comes from the Latin for “fateful draw” or “casting of lots,” and their use dates back to ancient times. They were common in the Roman Empire, where Nero was a fan, and were cited in the Bible for everything from determining who got to keep Jesus’ garments to choosing the next king of Israel. In the early American colonies, they were used to finance a wide variety of projects, from supplying a battery of guns for Philadelphia to rebuilding Faneuil Hall. But they were also tangled up with the slave trade in some unexpected ways: George Washington managed a lottery that included human beings as prizes; a formerly enslaved man bought his freedom through a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

When state-run lotteries first emerged in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Cohen explains, they were a remarkably popular way for states to generate revenue without raising taxes on poor people. The idea was that, by selling tickets, the lottery would give millions of ordinary Americans a chance to become rich and, in turn, help fund their government. This vision proved highly seductive, especially in the Northeast and the Rust Belt, where lottery sales exploded.

In the beginning, most states legislated their own monopolies; established a public agency or corporation to run them; began with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, as pressure mounted for more revenue, systematically increased both prize amounts and the complexity of the games. This expansion, however, coincided with a decline in financial security for the average person. The gap between rich and poor widened, pensions eroded, job security waned, health-care costs skyrocketed, and America’s long-standing promise that education and hard work would make you better off than your parents’ generation grew steadily more out of reach.

As a result, the public’s attitude toward lotteries changed from one of acceptance to an insistence that they be made fairer. As a result, critics have been able to build a case that the lotteries are not just regressive but dangerous and harmful.

Lottery commissions have responded to this criticism by changing the message they deliver. They now rely on two messages, both of which obscure the regressivity of their offerings: One is that lotteries are fun, which is coded to suggest that they should be taken lightly. The other is that they raise a substantial amount of money for states, though I have never seen this figure put in the context of overall state revenue. Both of these messages, I believe, are misguided. They may benefit some people, but they will also hurt a large number of them, and they should be abolished.