The Official Lottery

Lotteries are run by governments and offer a chance to win money or prizes by matching numbers. They may be used to fund public works, such as roads or schools, or for other purposes. They are usually regulated by laws that prohibit bribing, fraud and other criminal activity. They are also popular for funding religious and charitable causes, as well as sporting events. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. John Hancock ran one to raise funds for Boston’s Faneuil Hall, while George Washington tried to run a lottery to finance a road across a mountain pass in Virginia.

The modern era of the official lottery, Cohen argues, began in the nineteen-sixties as state governments struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both options would have been highly unpopular with voters. A growing awareness of all the money that could be made in the gambling business, combined with a broader public aversion to paying taxes, helped lottery games seem like an appealing alternative.

The legalization of the lottery spread in a geographical pattern, he writes. “As soon as a state legalized it, states around it seemed to follow suit pretty quickly.” However, moral and religious sensitivities started to turn against gambling in general in the 1800s, partly because of the exploitation of enslaved people. Corruption was another factor; people could buy tickets and abscond with the proceeds, without ever giving out prizes.