The Truth About the Official Lottery

Lottery games have been around for thousands of years. In the ancient world, prizes ranged from food and drink to livestock and slaves, and the practice was often used to finance large projects like building the Great Wall of China. Modern legalized lotteries have grown in popularity around the world, raising billions of dollars for everything from health care to education.

In America, lottery play first grew into a national phenomenon in colonial America, where it played a significant role in the funding of public and private ventures, including roads, canals, churches, libraries, and some of the country’s first prestigious universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth. Lottery games were a source of civic pride, and winning was seen as a form of patriotism.

But the lottery era was brought to an abrupt halt by concerns about mismanagement and corruption. By the end of the nineteenth century, all but one state—Louisiana—had banned lotteries. The Louisiana State Lottery Company marketed its game nationally and even sold tickets across state lines, but Congress banned the interstate sale of lottery tickets in 1890, and with that, the Louisiana Lottery came to an end.

Lottery sales depend on economic fluctuation; Cohen points out that “lottery revenues increase as incomes decline and unemployment rises.” And as with all commercial products, lotteries are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. But the worst thing about the lottery is that, no matter how many millions of dollars a person wins, there’s always a chance they might lose it all to someone else.