The practice of dividing land or property by lot dates to ancient times. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lottery, and Roman emperors used them to give away slaves and other properties during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were brought to the United States by British colonists, but initially had a mixed reception. Many Christians were outraged, and ten states banned them between 1844 and 1859. But despite initial disapproval, the idea soon took hold in the American imagination.

Unlike most gambling games, the lottery appealed not merely to greed but to people’s longing for hope. Its improbable prizes were emblems of a fading national promise that hard work, education, and good behavior would lead to prosperity and a secure retirement. In the nineteen-seventies, as the baby boomers grew older and state budgets ran into trouble, it became harder to balance the books without raising taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters.

The solution came in the form of a multistate game that drew on the popularity of football and other sports to make winning big easy. But while the national lottery boosted ticket sales, it did not boost revenue overall. State governments still had to pay out a large percentage of the prize money, leaving less for the rest of the state budget. That is why advocates, no longer able to sell the lottery as a magic bullet that would cover the entire state budget, began pitching it as a way of paying for a particular line item, usually a popular one like education or elder care.