The Evolution of the Official Lottery

A form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random and prizes (money or goods) are awarded. Modern lotteries include those used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away, and the drawing of a jury. In a strictly gambling type of lottery, consideration must be paid in order to have a chance of winning; this is not the case with other types of official lotteries, such as those for the diversity immigrant visa program.

Lotteries became popular in the United States after the Revolutionary War, despite Protestant moral objections to gambling and a lack of state revenue. Privately organized lotteries were especially common in the colonies, where they helped finance European settlement of America and many projects within the colonies, including a battery of guns for Philadelphia and the rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston. By the nineteenth century, though, the widespread public perception of lottery corruption and crooked promoters had begun to undermine the arguments in favor of legalized gambling.

Cohen argues that the growth of public awareness about the enormous profits to be made in the lottery industry coincided with the emergence of a crisis in state funding, resulting from rising population and inflation. Balancing budgets became difficult for most states, particularly those that provided a generous social safety net. In response, state officials began to use the lottery as a way to raise funds without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were unpopular with voters.