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The History of Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which people buy tickets and prizes are given to the winners, often sponsored by states or organizations as a means of raising funds. The word derives from the Latin for “casting lots” or the drawing of lots, an ancient method of determining a person’s fate or fortune. Lottery has become an integral part of many societies and contributes billions of dollars to state coffers every year, even though it is often viewed as a sin. Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, for example, portrays a family’s struggle with this vice. The story begins when a middle-aged housewife, Tessie, is late to her family’s lottery celebration because she’s finishing up the breakfast dishes. The head of the family draws a folded slip of paper from a box—one marked with a black spot, and only one slip per family.

The story illustrates the way people use the lottery to fulfill fantasies and as a substitute for other means of getting wealth, such as hard work, savings, or investment. The underlying moral lesson is that the odds of winning are very low, yet people continue to play. This is because of the belief that if you’re good enough, you’ll be rich someday, and this mindset makes it difficult to accept that you won’t win.

In the United States, lottery revenues have been the source of much controversy. While the game’s popularity is increasing, critics have argued that it is harmful to society. Among their concerns are the high levels of addictive gambling behavior, the use of false advertising in the promotion of lottery games, and the inability to regulate the industry. Nevertheless, the majority of state governments have legalized lottery play.

The modern lottery traces its roots to the fourteenth century, when public lotteries were first established in the Low Countries for town fortifications and charity. Later, they spread to England and the New World. Although the casting of lots has a long record in human history, it was only in the eighteenth century that lottery profits became an important source of state revenue.

Cohen argues that the expansion of the modern lottery began when growing awareness of the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-sixties, the costs of a growing population, inflation, and the war in Vietnam pushed many state budgets to the breaking point. State officials began to look for ways to balance their budgets without imposing new taxes or cutting essential services.

By the early nineteen-eighties, advocates of state-run lotteries had repackaged their case. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float the entire budget, they now claimed it would pay for a specific line item, invariably a popular and nonpartisan service like education or elder care. The strategy enabled lottery proponents to sell the concept to an increasingly tax averse public.