The History of the Official Lottery

A lottery is a game in which people have the chance to win prizes, often cash. There are state-run lotteries in the United States, and there are also private lotteries. A lottery draws winners at random, with different numbers representing prize levels. The director of a state-run lottery may determine the prize levels, and he or she may increase them from time to time to encourage play.

Cohen’s narrative picks up in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of how much money could be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. At that time, many states were offering generous social safety nets, which created budgetary challenges for politicians who needed to balance the books without raising taxes or cutting services.

The solution to these problems was, Cohen argues, the lottery. With its promise of hefty jackpots, the lottery was a tempting way for state governments to generate funds.

Once the lottery became popular, states began to legalize it quickly. He notes that it is “very common for a state to legalize the lottery and then all of the neighboring states seem to follow suit pretty shortly thereafter.” This has led to a geographical pattern in which the lottery spreads, with bordering states often following a lead set by one another.

As the lottery became a common practice, supporters of legalization started to reframe its role in state politics. They stopped arguing that the lottery would float most of a state’s budget, instead claiming that it would cover a particular line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This made it easier to sell the lottery, because voters didn’t need to worry that they were voting for gambling; they were simply supporting a worthy government service.