The Modern Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling that relies on chance. Although the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), the practice of running state-sponsored lotteries for material gain is fairly recent, dating from the fourteenth century in Europe. In the early modern period, it spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first state lottery in 1569 with the proceeds earmarked for town fortifications and charity for the poor. Tickets cost ten shillings, a substantial sum for the times—and in addition to their potential prize value, each ticket also served as a get-out-of-jail-free card, since participants were exempt from arrest for most crimes except murder, piracy, and treason.

Cohen nods to the earliest lotteries and their lingering influence, but his main focus is on the lottery’s modern incarnation, which began in the nineteen-sixties as growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gaming business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with rising population, inflation, and the cost of fighting the Vietnam War, many states were finding it hard to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—options that were wildly unpopular with voters.

The solution, inevitably, came from the right: state-run lotteries that, Cohen and Clotfelter argue, are effective at winning broad public support because they allow people to gamble while “funding a worthy cause”—in this case, education. This argument is especially effective in times of economic stress, when states find it difficult to justify tax increases or budget cuts in the eyes of their constituents.

Nevertheless, the popularity of state lotteries is not closely linked to the state government’s actual fiscal condition, as studies show that the profits from lotteries are often spent outside of state government programs. Furthermore, a large proportion of lottery players and revenue comes from convenience stores, suppliers of lotteries’ products; they are thus a key constituency for state legislators seeking to keep the lottery alive.

A recent study found that the wealthy play the lottery far less than the poor, averaging only one percent of their income on tickets, as opposed to thirteen percent for the poor. Yet the data also shows that lottery players are drawn heavily from middle-income neighborhoods, while fewer of them come from low-income ones—an observation that raises a host of ethical questions.

For example, the Huffington Post’s Highline reported on a Michigan couple who made millions by buying thousands of lottery tickets at a time in order to maximize their odds. While this strategy is not for everyone, it suggests that even the most casual lottery player can learn how to improve their chances of winning by making smart choices about their numbers. For instance, they should avoid using predictable sequences or those that end in similar digits. Instead, they should venture into new territory and try to choose numbers that fall in the range of 104 and 176—the range where 70% of jackpots are located.