The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a big business. Billboards tout the size of prizes and the likelihood of becoming rich overnight. People also just plain like to gamble, and lottery tickets are cheap. But the bigger problem with the lottery is that it dangles the possibility of instant riches in an age when social mobility seems to be at a near standstill.

In the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. For states with generous social safety nets, balancing the budget became increasingly difficult without either raising taxes or cutting services, options that were both unpopular with voters.

Lotteries emerged as a way to raise state revenues and provide funds for everything from civil defense to the construction of churches. They were especially popular in the colonial period, despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Several of the colonies had state-sponsored lotteries; Benjamin Franklin even ran one to finance the purchase of cannons for Philadelphia’s defense against the British.

In almost every case, the introduction of a state lottery followed remarkably similar patterns: Congress legislated a monopoly for itself; established a public agency or corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in exchange for a share of profits); and started operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Constant pressure for additional revenues prompted a gradual expansion into new types of games and an increase in promotional activities.

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