The Evolution of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which people pay a small amount to have the opportunity to win a larger sum, such as money or goods. The term comes from the Latin loteria, a combination of the words “to share” and “fate.” The idea behind the lottery is that each player has a fair chance of winning, because the winning number is drawn by chance. This is in contrast to games of skill, such as sports, where the outcome depends on the players’ skills.

In the late nineteen-sixties, when state governments were struggling to balance their budgets, lottery advocates argued that it was a good way to raise funds without a tax increase or spending cuts. The argument worked: states began introducing lotteries at a breakneck pace, largely in the Northeast and the Rust Belt.

As Cohen writes, these events reflected two important trends: the growing awareness that there’s money to be made in gambling (and the corresponding decline in Protestant religious proscriptions against it); and the increasing fiscal crisis in many states, due in large part to population growth and rising inflation. For many states, balancing the budget required raising taxes or cutting services, which were wildly unpopular with voters. Lotteries were a solution.

Once the lottery became a mainstream form of public finance, its critics started to focus on specific features of its operations. These included the impact on lower-income groups and compulsive gamblers, the regressive nature of its funding, and questions about whether the lottery was really “a tax on the poor.” These criticisms are not just reactions to the lottery’s ongoing evolution; they are also drivers of it.

The state-run lotteries in America were launched as a way to raise money for a variety of purposes, including building roads and schools. They became popular in the early colonial era and helped finance the Virginia Company’s settlement of the American continent. In the nineteenth century, they were tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways: George Washington managed one in Virginia that awarded human beings as prizes, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

Modern lotteries are run as a for-profit business, with a strong emphasis on advertising and promotional campaigns. As a result, they tend to be at cross-purposes with the interests of the general public. Few, if any, states have a coherent “lottery policy,” and state officials have little say in the direction that it takes. This means that, at least in the short-term, lotteries will continue to promote gambling and rely on it for revenue. The question is whether they will be able to continue to do so without causing damage to society at large.