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The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a game in which the chance of winning depends on the drawing of numbers. It is also a process by which something that’s in high demand can be distributed fairly, whether it’s units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. It can even be used to select members of a jury. Lotteries have been around for a long time. They were common in ancient Rome (Nero was a fan), and were also employed by the British colonists as a way of collecting “voluntary taxes.” Privately organized lotteries are still popular, often as a means of selling products or properties for more money than would be possible with a regular sale.

Cohen writes that during the eighties and nineties, when many Americans were struggling to make ends meet, state politicians saw lotteries as “budgetary miracles.” They promised to raise hundreds of millions by drawing numbers for a prize ranging from a free vacation to an entire town. They were a solution to the perennial problem faced by those trying to maintain government services without hiking taxes, which could frighten voters into rejecting any budget.

Lotteries are no longer touted as a silver bullet for states’ fiscal crises. Instead, advocates began arguing that they would cover a specific line item in a state’s budget—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. This was a much more palatable message, because it made it seem like a vote for the lottery wasn’t a vote for gambling. But it obscured the regressivity of the program, and it left little doubt that its real purpose was to dangle unimaginable wealth in front of people desperate for it.

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