Throughout history, people have used the casting of lots for everything from choosing kings and saints to finding treasure. In the fourteen-hundreds, it became a common practice in the Low Countries, where profits from lotteries were often used for town fortifications or to provide charity for the poor. By the sixteen-hundreds, the lottery had made its way to England, where Queen Elizabeth chartered the nation’s first state lotteries in 1606. Tickets cost ten shillings; winners were guaranteed a get-out-of-jail-free card (though, oddly, this wasn’t applicable to murder, treason or piracy).
In modern times, state-run lotteries are often marketed as a means of raising money for public benefits. As Cohen explains, this trend began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the profits to be had in gambling collided with a fiscal crisis. States were facing a host of issues, from a swelling population and rising inflation to the cost of fighting the Vietnam War. Balancing the budget required either raising taxes or cutting services, both options that were unpopular with voters.
Many states turned to lotteries as a solution, and, as studies have shown, they do have broad support from the public. But the popularity of a lottery doesn’t necessarily correlate with a state’s actual financial health; in fact, it seems that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state have little bearing on whether or not it adopts one. Rather, the lottery’s appeal lies in its ability to convince voters that it is a form of taxation for the public good.