The History of the Lottery

The lottery is an ancient practice with a long and sometimes controversial history. It is often associated with the distribution of property in the Old Testament and Roman emperors used it to distribute slaves and goods during Saturnalian feasts. Today, the lottery attracts billions of dollars in revenue and is widely seen as a source of hope and opportunity for many Americans. The odds of winning are very low, but compulsive gamblers and others have developed an addiction to this type of gambling. While it is not a government program, state lotteries are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction and using the same marketing strategies as tobacco or video-game manufacturers to keep players coming back.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery’s popularity has its roots in a time of economic crisis in American states in the nineteen-sixties. As inflation and population growth increased, state governments found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were deeply unpopular with voters. The adoption of a lottery offered a way to get taxpayers to spend their money on games with a relatively small chance of winning and thus relieve the pressure to raise taxes or cut social programs.

The success of the lottery has spawned a number of other types of “lottery-like” competitions, including those for units in subsidized housing developments and kindergarten placements at reputable public schools. But critics charge that the earmarking of lottery proceeds for specific purposes, such as education, is misleading since this simply allows legislatures to reduce their appropriations for other purposes from the general fund and thus not have to cut those other programs.

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