A lottery is a game in which people pay money to try to win prizes based on the chance of matching a set of numbers. Prizes may be cash or goods, but many people also use the term to refer to other types of drawings, such as a drawing for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. The word lottery is first recorded in English in the fifteenth century, though the practice likely dates back centuries earlier. In fact, the Old Testament referred to “divvying up land” by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property.
The modern lottery has a few essential components. First, there must be some way to record the identities of the bettors and the amounts staked by each. This can be as simple as a paper ticket that is deposited with the lottery organization and then redeemed later for a numbered receipt that can be matched to a list of winners. Some modern lotteries use computers to record the selections made by bettor, and then reshuffle the tickets and numbers before drawing them.
Another key component is a mechanism to award the winnings. The most common approach is to have a single drawing per day, with a fixed number of prizes, such as a car or a house, awarded to the bettor whose ticket matches a predetermined group of numbers. However, this approach has its drawbacks, as it can discourage participation and lead to a skewed distribution of prizes. Another approach is to hold a series of daily drawings for smaller prizes, such as an iPod or a television. These can help increase participation and ensure that the most recent winner is not too far removed from the last.
A final necessary element is a mechanism for collecting and pooling the money staked by bettors. This can be as simple as a ticket that is sold for a flat rate and then redeemed for a monetary value, or as complex as a system in which each bettor writes their name on a ticket that is then collected by a chain of sales agents before being redeemed at the official lottery agency. The latter approach is more common in Europe, where it is known as a vincenza.
Cohen argues that the lottery’s rise in America began in the nineteen-sixties, as growing awareness of the riches to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. The post-World War II era had been one in which states could expand their social safety nets without burdening the middle class and working classes with higher taxes. But in the nineteen-sixties, fueled by rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, that arrangement began to crumble.
The rise of the lottery offered a solution. With large jackpots making headlines and offering the tantalizing promise of instant wealth, the lottery was the perfect product to sell to a populace that had seen its standard of living decline dramatically over the previous decade.