Day 7: Lucky Number

by ashleighpenrod

I hadn’t been paying much (any) attention to the growing Powerball jackpot until I caught The Onion’s story about the missing balls. As with most Onion stories, I hoped it was real. It wasn’t.

“It’s usually Marketing Director Ben Callahan’s job to keep an eye on the balls, but when reached for a comment, Callahan said he just sits next to the balls. It’s not his job to know where they are every second of every day.”

Apparently, the balls were fine and the drawing went off without a hitch.

All this talk about balls had me wondering how the lottery came to exist in its current form.

From what I can gather on a rainy Saturday morning, the original lotteries were used to fund major city and countrywide projects. Lottery first shows up in history during the Chinese Han Dynasty in the second century B.C., and may have been used to help fund the Great Wall of China. During the 15th Century, lotteries raised money for the poor and for public services.

In early American history, lotteries funded roads, public buildings, churches, new technology and a few major ivy-league universities. Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to finance cannons for the Revolutionary War (though he was apparently unsuccessful). Note: if you’re ever in New Jersey and want to view lottery tickets from the 1700s, Princeton University has an American Lottery Tickets Collection you may find titillating.

Although it was a form of voluntary taxation, lottery became a sore social issue in the 1800s and was outlawed in the U.S. in 1905. It came back into play in the 1960s and really took off with Scientific Game’s development of the secure instant ticket in 1974.

Since then, we’ve been a lotto-happy country. Although it varies by state, lotto still funds public programs and services. Somewhere between a fifth and a third of every dollar goes back into the community.

That said, the majority of our news and social discussion about lotto is about payoff and probabilities. Dreams, cash, chances… I don’t know anyone who bought a Powerball ticket because they wanted to support their local school district.

Having learned a little history, I’m still a little wary. The lottery is a somewhat-philanthropic endeavor that makes us act and sound like greedy little monsters.

Post Script: What will the Powerball winners do with the money? For one take, check out The Onion’s funny and sad story about how they’re divorced and bankrupt less than 24 hours after winning.