The Rise of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling where people pay to buy a chance at winning money or other prizes. State governments typically run lotteries, and they may ban or regulate them as they see fit. In the United States, most states and Washington, DC have a lottery, and they use the proceeds to fund state programs. While the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history, the lottery as a vehicle to win material rewards is a much more recent development.

Early in the American colonies, lotteries were common sources of revenue, despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Thomas Jefferson held a private lottery to raise funds for his debts, Benjamin Franklin ran one to fund cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, and enslaved people used a variety of means to try their luck at winning freeing themselves.

Eventually, state officials embraced the lottery as a source of state income. They argued that it could be regulated more fairly than other forms of gambling and that the proceeds would support public goods such as education. Moreover, they pointed out that the lottery would be less likely to provoke taxpayer revolts because it did not involve raising taxes or cutting public services.

Today, more than a century after New Hampshire’s first state lottery, state officials have established an extraordinary record of success. Lottery revenues now make up a substantial portion of the budgets in almost every state. The vast majority of adults in America play the lottery at least occasionally, and the public generally supports the continued operation of state lotteries.

Cohen argues that the lottery’s rise was driven by the convergence of three factors: increasing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business, rising levels of state government debt, and a growing recognition that the old system of financing the state had become unsustainable. By the nineteen sixties, with a growing population and a widening social safety net, it was becoming more difficult for many states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services.

A key to the success of state lotteries has been their ability to capture popular support for the idea of a random distribution of prizes. Lotteries can also appeal to particular groups: convenience store owners (who get a substantial share of the proceeds); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions from them to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers (in those states in which the lotteries’ revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators themselves, who quickly develop a dependence on lotteries’ revenue streams.

The odds of winning the lottery are very slim, but you can improve your chances by using some basic strategies. For starters, look for numbers that aren’t repeated too often. To do this, take a look at the numbers on a previous ticket and note how often they appear. Also, watch out for singletons, or digits that are unique to the particular draw.