The History of the Lottery

Lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling, a game where prizes are assigned by a process that relies on chance and is purely random. The casting of lots has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible, but it was not until the fourteenth century that a lottery began to appear as a means of raising funds for public usages. The first lottery was organized in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium (the English word comes from the Dutch, though its roots are unknown) and was intended to raise money for poor relief.

The basic requirements of a lottery are straightforward: a way to determine which bettors will win the prize, a method for identifying them and the amounts they staked, and some sort of pool from which winners will be selected. Some percentage of the pool must go to organizing and promoting costs, with a remaining percentage normally used for the prize money.

In his article, Cohen argues that the modern incarnation of the lottery arose when rising awareness of all the possible profits to be made in the gambling business collided with a fiscal crisis for state governments. In the nineteen-seventies, population growth and inflation caused government spending to skyrocket; at the same time, social safety nets began to erode. It became impossible for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both unpopular with voters.

Cohen argues that in the face of these growing problems, a number of states began to use lotteries as a way to raise revenue with minimal public outcry. But the way in which lottery operations were launched reveals how little thought was given to their long-term impact. As the state-sponsored games grew in size and complexity, their popularity continued to increase.