The History of the Lottery

A competition based on chance, in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes, usually money, are given to the holders of certain numbers drawn at random. Lotteries are sometimes used to raise funds for public usages.

The modern incarnation of the lottery was born in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Many states, particularly those that provided a generous social safety net, were finding it harder and harder to balance the budget without either raising taxes or cutting services, which were deeply unpopular with voters.

Lotteries offered a way around this dilemma. Unlike most other forms of gambling, the odds of winning were so low that a substantial percentage of ticket sales could be earmarked for public use. Lottery commissioners realized that, if the prize amounts were high enough, even those who couldn’t afford to buy much of the ticket would still be drawn to the lottery, so they started lifting prize caps and making the odds even lower. The New York Lotto, for example, began with one-in-three-million odds; today the odds are a fraction of that.

Once it became clear that people were willing to spend large sums of money on lottery tickets, legalization advocates reworked their pitch. Rather than argue that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they began to emphasize a specific line item—usually education, but sometimes elder care or aid for veterans—that was popular and nonpartisan.