The History of the Lottery


The lottery may seem like the latest trend in a culture that birthed Instagram and the Kardashians, but it has roots as deep as America itself. Historically, drawing lots to decide rights and fortunes has been a time-honored practice, cited in the Old Testament, a Roman law, and in many European monarchies; it was also popular in colonial America as a way of raising funds for projects such as building churches, roads, and wharves.

In the modern era, however, lottery playing has come to represent something different: a desperate attempt by some to make up for failings that cannot be corrected by hard work or education. Cohen, who has written about gambling and social class, traces the development of modern state-sponsored lotteries in the nineteen-seventies, when an obsession with unimaginable wealth, including the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot, coincided with a collapse in financial security for working people. The income gap between rich and poor widened, job security and pensions disappeared, health-care costs skyrocketed, and for many children born in those decades, the long-standing national promise that hard work and education would guarantee them a better life than their parents became just another empty myth.

Cohen’s central argument is that the lottery was a response to this crisis, and that it has since grown in popularity because it offers states the possibility of recouping some of their lost revenue without having to raise taxes or cut services, which are extremely unpopular with voters. The first state-run lottery was approved by New Hampshire in 1964, and 13 others followed within a few years. These were mainly Northeastern and Rust Belt states that offered generous social safety nets; by the nineteen-eighties, however, the country’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt had made it more difficult for states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or reducing benefits, both of which are deeply regressive.

While defenders of the lottery tend to argue that people who play don’t understand the odds or are “duped,” Cohen’s research suggests otherwise. Lottery spending is correlated with economic fluctuations, rising as incomes fall and unemployment rises; and it is more heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or black. Moreover, even when factoring in other forms of gambling, lottery playing is more common among the young and the old, the less educated and the religious, suggesting that it is a form of cultural reinforcement that tries to compensate for a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

Lottery players often have “quote-unquote systems” that are not based on statistical reasoning, such as choosing certain numbers over others or purchasing tickets in certain stores. But they all share the belief that a little bit of luck, no matter how improbable, will set them on the path to a better future. This is why lottery play is so popular, even when most players know that they are unlikely to win. They just believe that someday, someone will. This story is an adapted excerpt from a longer article published in the July 2016 issue of The New York Times Magazine.