The Evolution of the Lottery


The casting of lots for money and goods has a long history (including several instances in the Bible), but establishing lotteries as a means of raising revenue is relatively modern. The states have been promoting these activities as a source of “painless” taxes, arguing that they allow the state to fund important services without increasing onerous burdens on the middle and working classes. Once a lottery is established, however, its operations are subject to ongoing and often intense debate and criticism. These issues are not just reactions to, or drivers of, the lottery’s ongoing evolution: they also reflect fundamental questions of public policy.

The main argument used to justify the lottery is that it allows governments to raise significant sums of money through an activity that is popular with the general public and which can be marketed and promoted effectively. Unlike other forms of gambling, which require high initial investments and can quickly become addictive, the lottery provides instant gratification with a low entry cost and low risk of loss. Moreover, the large prizes on offer can attract a broad spectrum of people, including those who would not otherwise gamble.

Lottery advertising aims to convince potential customers that the game is fair, and emphasizes that winning is possible without substantial effort. In the era of heightened income inequality and limited social mobility, lottery promotions have a powerful appeal. Winning the lottery is a rare opportunity to achieve wealth with minimal risk, and it is not unusual for those who win huge sums to find themselves worse off than before.

Despite these concerns, the vast majority of Americans support the lottery and play regularly. In many states, 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. Those who play do so for a variety of reasons, but the most common are that they enjoy it and believe that their chances of winning are good.

As a result of this popularity, the lottery has evolved in response to specific pressures and interests. In the process, it has become a highly specialized form of gambling, involving complex rules and procedures and offering a wide array of games. It has developed extensive constituencies, including convenience store operators (who serve as the lottery’s primary vendors); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are well documented); teachers (in states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who learn to rely on lottery profits).

The result is that the lottery has grown from an activity of limited scope into an enormous business. It is run as a for-profit enterprise, and its marketing strategies are designed to maximize profits. The question is whether this puts the lottery at cross-purposes with the public interest. If it does, what should be done about it? The answer to this question will ultimately depend on the state’s overall vision of its role in society. Until that is clarified, the fate of state lotteries will continue to depend on how they are managed by those in government.