The History of the Lottery
As the name suggests, a lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random and people who match them win a prize. It is a form of gambling and it is illegal in most places. However, it is also popular because it provides an opportunity to win big money. The odds of winning are extremely low, but some people still believe that they have a chance to win. The odds of winning depend on the number of tickets sold and the amount of money that is invested in the ticket.
Lottery was a common practice in colonial America where it was used to fund both public and private projects. Public lotteries were used to build roads, churches, and canals. They were also used to finance the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Private lotteries were also popular and helped to fund universities like Columbia, Princeton, King’s College, William and Mary, and Yale.
After World War II, state governments began relying more and more on lottery profits to fund their budgets. This arrangement worked well for a while until inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and the birthrate accelerated, leaving states with shrinking tax revenues and expanding social safety nets that could not be easily balanced. By the late nineteen-sixties, many states were looking for ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which would be unpopular with voters.
The first modern state lottery was established in New Hampshire in 1964, and the idea caught on quickly. In the ensuing years, thirty-six states joined the lottery. Most of them are in the Northeast or Rust Belt, and most of them were founded by people who believed that the lottery would be an easy way to raise lots of money for their states without rousing the populace with taxes.
Cohen argues that the lottery’s appeal to many politicians stemmed in large part from its ability to disabuse them of long-standing ethical objections to gambling. They figured that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits and redistribute them to poor communities. This argument was flawed, of course, but it offered moral cover for legislators who approved the lottery.
Before the 1970s, state lotteries were essentially traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing that was often weeks or months away. But innovations in the early seventies, including instant games such as scratch-offs, changed the whole industry. In addition to increasing the speed at which prizes were awarded, these innovations also made it possible for lottery officials to control more of the revenue stream and reduce their reliance on ticket sales. Moreover, because the public tends to get bored with the same games over time, new games are constantly introduced to maintain and increase revenue. This is the only way for the lottery to continue growing.