The History of the Lottery

With its roots in ancient Rome (Nero loved them; they were also a popular part of Saturnalia dinner entertainment), lottery is a venerable pastime. It has also been used for a variety of purposes, including distributing property and slaves, and divining God’s will. The casting of lots to decide things is well documented in the Bible, and lotteries were commonplace in Europe from the 17th century onward as a way to raise money for everything from public repairs to charitable work.

The modern state-run lottery boomed in the late nineteen-seventies and eighties, as states searched for ways to float budget deficits without enraging an anti-tax electorate. State officials promoted the lottery as a painless source of revenue, and its popularity surged.

As Cohen explains, this was partly a result of Americans’ obsession with unimaginable wealth, and the belief that “hard work and education will make them rich someday.” But it also coincided with a decline in financial security for working people, as income inequality widened and health-care costs rose, pensions shrank, and job security became an endangered species.

When legalization advocates could no longer argue that a lottery would float the whole of a state’s budget, they shifted their argument, arguing that it would cover only a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan–most often education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. The narrower strategy reframed the debate, and made it easier for voters to endorse state-run gambling. It also gave them moral cover for approving a practice that they would have been aghast to see sold by a tobacco company or video-game maker.