Lottery Games and Public Works

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, including several examples in the Bible and numerous instances in ancient Roman history. But lottery games with tickets for money are a relatively recent innovation. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications, and later, to help the poor.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, private lotteries were widely used in Britain and America as a means to sell products and properties for more than they would fetch at a normal market price. The colonies also used state-sanctioned lotteries to finance a variety of public works projects, including roads, canals, and bridges as well as colleges like Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary.

But by the nineteen-sixties, the nation’s obsession with unimaginable wealth and dreams of winning a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot coincided with a collapse in the financial security of working people. The gap between rich and poor grew, job security eroded, and health-care costs skyrocketed. Many families began to wonder if they would ever be able to retire or pay for their children’s college educations.

Against this backdrop, advocates of legalized lotteries changed their strategy. Rather than trying to convince voters that the proceeds of a lottery would float the entire state budget, they argued that it could pay for a single line item, usually education but sometimes other services like elder care or aid for veterans. This approach obviated the ethical objections to gambling and provided political cover for those who were still wary of tax increases or cuts in government spending.