The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which participants pay for tickets and hope to win prizes. Typically, a percentage of the ticket sales goes to administrative costs and profit for the state or sponsor, and the remainder is awarded as prizes to winners. Lotteries have a long history, going back to ancient Rome (Nero was a fan) and Renaissance Europe, where they were used to fund everything from town fortifications to churches.

The modern incarnation of the lottery, Cohen writes, began in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As the cost of the Vietnam War and inflation rose, state coffers began to dwindle, and many voters were averse to raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries offered a palatable alternative.

In the early days of the modern lottery, Cohen writes, rich people bought a majority of tickets. But in time, the wealthy bought fewer of them, and tickets became increasingly affordable for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. In fact, poor and middle-class players buy far more of the tickets than rich ones, on average spending one per cent of their income on them; people making over fifty thousand dollars spend only about half that much. Super-sized jackpots also drive ticket sales, since they give the games a windfall of free publicity on news sites and television.