The lottery is the gambling event of choice for millions of Americans who spend billions each year. While the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history (including a mention in the Bible), public lotteries are much newer, with the first recorded ones appearing in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century to raise money for municipal repairs, town fortifications, and aid to the poor.
Lotteries were a perfect fit for American politics in the late-twentieth century, when population growth and rising inflation made it impossible to balance state budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—and politicians had no stomach for either option. As Cohen puts it, they were essentially “budgetary miracles, the chance for states to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.”
From the start, lotteries have been at odds with public opinion, and not just because people were suspicious of government-backed gambling. As early as the American Revolution, there were concerns that a lottery would be used by the British to undermine the colonies’ independence. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, but it failed.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, public lotteries proliferated in Europe, spreading to America with European settlement. Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, they quickly became popular in the thirteen colonies and spread to the Caribbean. They even figured in the slave trade, with George Washington managing a Virginia lottery that offered human beings as prizes and Denmark Vesey using his winnings to foment a slave rebellion.
But, as the popularity of lotteries grew, so did criticism. People were concerned about their impact on the poor and problem gamblers, and they questioned whether it was right for the federal government to be in the business of encouraging people to spend their money on the hope of getting rich.
To counter this, state lottery commissioners began to innovate. Instead of offering fixed-amount prizes, they began allowing players to select their own numbers, increasing the odds of winning while keeping the prize amounts relatively small. They also started promoting their games through aggressive advertising, with messages that seemed to resonate with Americans’ desire for instant gratification.
These strategies have worked, and today lottery revenues are higher than ever. But, as Cohen argues, they are not immune to the forces that drove their creation: growing awareness of all the ways that gambling can be addictive, and a desperate need for states to increase revenue. As long as a lottery remains a government-backed gambling product, these issues will be at play. In the end, the lottery is a reminder of how easily a well-intentioned idea can be misguided. Fortunately, there are alternatives to the lottery that can help people build savings and get out of debt. But those alternatives require a significant investment of time and energy, and may not be as easy on the wallet as winning the jackpot.