The official lottery is a multi-billion industry that offers players a chance to win big prizes. But it wasn’t always that way. The history of state lotteries is a long and sometimes rocky one. The game was once considered a scourge of morality, but today it is a widely accepted form of public and private fundraising. In fact, Americans spend an estimated $100 billion on tickets each year. Nevertheless, the lottery’s legacy remains a complex one, both in the United States and internationally.
In his book, “The Official Lottery: A History,” historian David Cohen traces the origins of the modern game. He argues that the heyday of the lottery began in the nineteen sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With the population swelling, inflation rising and the war in Vietnam draining state coffers, balancing budgets became increasingly difficult for many states. And, for many of them, raising taxes or cutting services would have proved wildly unpopular with voters.
Lotteries became a popular alternative for raising revenue, particularly in early America where religious beliefs and economic exigency both drove the rise of gambling. Puritans may have viewed it as a sin, but the colonies were in dire need of revenue. Early lottery games helped fund everything from colleges and churches to ferries, canals and roads. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to raise money for the Revolutionary War.
But in the 1800s, changing religious and social sensibilities started to turn the tide against gambling in general, leading eventually to prohibition. Also, a growing distaste for corruption eroded the moral appeal of the lottery. One of the earliest scandals involved a Charleston, South Carolina, lottery that was run by Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man who won a ticket and used the prize money to buy his freedom.
Lottery officials were forced to change tactics as well. They stopped arguing that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget and instead began to emphasize that it could cover a particular line item—usually education, but also elder care, public parks or aid for veterans. This new, more narrowly focused approach proved effective. By the 1990s, the majority of state lottery revenues went to education.