The Official Lottery

The Official Lottery

Official Lottery is a magazine devoted to the lottery industry, with news and commentary on state, national and international lotteries. It is available through subscription at select newsstands and by direct mail. The magazine’s Web site features a free, searchable archive of past issues.

While the modern lottery began in the late nineteenth century, its roots reach back to ancient times. The practice of arranging random drawings for prizes dates to at least the Chinese Han dynasty (205 and 187 BC). Lotteries were later adopted by many of the world’s civilizations, including Rome, Greece, China, Japan and the Arab world. In the United States, the first state-controlled lotteries began to appear in the nineteenth century.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern incarnation of the lottery started in earnest in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the enormous amounts of money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. In the wake of a rapidly expanding population and soaring inflation, many states found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services — options that were wildly unpopular with voters.

Lotteries were one way that governments could raise money without infuriating their constituents, and they quickly became very popular. In America, they helped finance everything from churches and schools to roads and canals. The colonies even used them during the French and Indian War to help finance fortifications and militias, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

But the lottery was a gamble: Its profits often fell short of what was needed to meet obligations and expectations, and critics were relentless. They came from all walks of life, but most notably from devout Protestants, who regarded government-sanctioned gambling as morally unconscionable. (By contrast, Catholics were overwhelmingly pro-lottery and reliably flocked to bingo games and other forms of gambling.)

In the end, the only thing that kept the lottery from being totally rejected by Americans was exigency. With populations soaring, inflation spiraling and the cost of the Vietnam War mounting, states were desperate to find new sources of revenue that didn’t anger their voters. Fortunately for the lottery industry, it turns out that gamblers are always ready to take a chance for a big payoff.