The Evolution of the Lottery


A competition based on chance, in which tokens are sold and prizes awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random. Prizes can range from money to goods. The lottery is a popular form of gambling and has become an integral part of American culture, contributing billions of dollars to the economy each year.

Lottery is a classic example of public policy evolving piecemeal and incrementally, with the general welfare taken into consideration only intermittently if at all. Once a state’s lottery is established, critics often shift the focus from its desirability to more specific features of its operations, such as the problem of compulsive gamblers or its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. These criticisms are both reactions to and drivers of the continuing evolution of lottery operations.

In 1964, New Hampshire became the first state to establish a lottery, and thirteen others followed suit in the following years. These states, all of which are now home to a state-run lottery, did so largely by claiming that the revenue from the games would allow them to avoid raising taxes. The argument had some appeal, Cohen writes, because it seemed to acknowledge that people would gamble anyway, and the government might as well pocket the proceeds; thus, it offered moral cover for white voters who opposed raising property taxes, which were a major source of state income at the time.

But the claims that lotteries would float entire budgets soon proved false, and the idea that they could keep money in the pockets of average citizens was not borne out by the experience of any state that legalized them. Instead, they began to claim that the lottery would subsidize a single line item in the state’s budget, usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid to veterans. This approach had the virtue of making it easy for advocates to campaign for legalization, since a vote in favor of the lottery was not a vote against education, for example.

State-run lotteries are now at work in every one of the fifty states and the District of Columbia, and they bring in revenues in excess of two per cent of state spending. They are not only popular, but they are also among the fastest growing sources of state funding. The expansion of the lottery is a sign of how far we have moved from the era when the common wisdom was that gambling should be kept out of the hands of the government.

While it is not unusual for private businesses to advertise their products in a manner designed to encourage addiction, such advertising by government-run lotteries is highly problematic. The promotion of gambling undermines broader social values, encourages poor people to spend their hard-earned money on tickets they will never win, and may even contribute to the decline in the health of the nation’s youth. Moreover, it is an unwise way to raise money for important state services.