The History of the Official Lottery

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A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize, such as cash or goods. Lottery games were common in the fourteenth century and became legal in England in the sixteenth century. They were popular with kings and queens for their ability to raise money for the war effort, as well as towns, fortifications, and charitable institutions.

The modern state lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, when “growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling” collided with a crisis in state funding. The postwar prosperity that had allowed states to expand their social safety nets without too onerous taxes on the middle class and working class started to wane in the face of inflation, population growth, and the cost of the Vietnam War. For lawmakers facing this reality, it was impossible to maintain existing services and balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting them, both of which were extremely unpopular with voters.

Lotteries provided a way to make revenue appear out of thin air, and politicians, especially those in tax-averse New Hampshire, started selling them as a silver bullet for state budgets. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float the entire state budget, advocates began to claim it would cover a specific line item—most commonly education but also elder care and public parks or aid to veterans. This approach, which focused attention on the benefits of a lottery while downplaying its dangers, helped legalize the practice for many states.