The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has long been a popular pastime. It was common in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan, for example) and is attested to throughout the Bible, where lots are used for everything from determining who will keep Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion to choosing kings. Lotteries were also frequently used as a way to raise money for townships, wars, colleges and public works projects.
The modern lottery, as described by Cohen in this article, started in the early nineteen sixties, when a state-level expansion of social safety net benefits collided with the financial crisis brought on by inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. It was becoming increasingly hard for states to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services that people wanted, and neither option was palatable with voters.
Lottery advocates, unable to argue that the lottery would float entire state budgets, shifted strategy and began promoting it as a source of revenue for a single line item in the state budget–usually education but occasionally other popular nonpartisan services like parks and elder care. This approach made it easy to convince voters that a vote in favor of the lottery was not a vote for gambling but a vote to help veterans, for example.
Lottery play is a form of gambling, and it’s usually not profitable for people who spend significant sums on tickets. But for many people, especially those who don’t have very good prospects in the real world of work and wealth, lottery playing provides a little sliver of hope that they might win someday. That hope, irrational and mathematically impossible as it may be, has value to them.