The History of Lotteries and How They Affect Us

Lotteries are an ancient and widespread form of gambling that involves the drawing of lots to determine prizes. They are often marketed as a source of public funds for things such as roads and buildings. In its modern incarnation, however, the lottery is often seen as an addictive and harmful form of gambling that can have serious negative impacts on people’s lives. The lottery is a popular way to raise money for state and local governments, but many people have a hard time understanding how it works and the ways in which it affects the people who play it.

In a new book, David Cohen examines the history of lotteries and their role in modern society, from their beginnings to the current state of affairs. He begins by describing how, in the seventeenth century, state-sponsored lotteries became common in Europe and the United States, largely to finance public goods and services. These included everything from building the British Museum to repairing bridges. In the American colonies, state-sponsored lotteries helped build a battery of guns for Philadelphia and rebuild Faneuil Hall in Boston. They also provided funding for a number of colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale, which were chartered in the early years of the colonial period.

The book then moves on to the modern era of lotteries, which grew in popularity starting in the nineteen sixties, when rising population and inflation began to erode America’s traditional prosperity. At the same time, many states found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting essential public services. Lotteries were an attractive option because they were simple to organize and popular with the general public.

While the exact reason why lotteries started to become more popular is not entirely clear, Cohen suggests that it had something to do with the fact that states were looking for solutions to their budgetary problems that would not enrage anti-tax voters. He also notes that the promotion of lotteries relied on a particular message: Even if you lose, you can feel good about yourself because you did your civic duty to buy a ticket.

Ultimately, however, the popularity of lotteries waned as states continued to struggle with fiscal challenges. In the late twentieth century, states like California passed Proposition 13, dramatically reducing property tax rates and encouraging other cities to follow suit, and federal money flowing into state coffers decreased. By the end of the twentieth century, the number of states offering a state lottery had dropped from thirty-nine to thirteen.

Nevertheless, in the early twenty-first century, legalization advocates found a new strategy. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they began to argue that it would fund a single line item, invariably one that was popular and nonpartisan—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This more focused approach made it easier for lawmakers to sell a lottery, as it implied that a vote for the measure was not a vote for gambling but for an important government service.