The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people buy tickets with numbers on them, and winners are chosen by drawing lots. Originally, it was used to fund public works; it later became a popular way of raising money for private causes. Today, it is a major industry. People spend billions of dollars a week on the lottery, but the odds are very low. The winnings can be very high, but they also come with huge tax consequences — and most people who win go bankrupt in a few years.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern incarnation of lotteries started in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of the potential for profits in the gaming business collided with a crisis in state funding. As populations grew and inflation soared, many states found it impossible to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. These were options that proved highly unpopular with voters.

Rather than seek alternative means of financing government spending, many state governments turned to the lottery. New Hampshire, the first to introduce such a game, did so in 1964, and it was quickly followed by thirteen other states, most of them in the Northeast or the Rust Belt.

The story begins with Tessie, a middle-aged housewife who has been late for Lottery Day because she had to finish washing her breakfast dishes. She draws a slip of paper from a box, and it’s marked with a black spot. The rest of the family draws theirs, and then there’s banter about which stores sell the best tickets and what time of day is best to buy them.