The Official Lottery

Lotteries, public games of chance that draw winning numbers and award prizes, are a ubiquitous feature of modern life. They can take many forms, but they all share a few basic elements: a mechanism for collecting and pooling money staked by bettors; a way to record the identities of those who have placed their stakes; and a system for determining which numbers or other symbols will win. Modern lotteries may also offer other features such as instant tickets (also known as scratch tickets), keno, and video lottery terminals.

In the early modern period, the lottery was a private game operated by individuals or organizations, such as religious groups or charitable foundations. By the nineteenth century, however, some states began to experiment with government-run lotteries. During this period, opponents of state-run lotteries questioned both the morality of funding public services through gambling and the amount of money that state coffers stood to gain from the new enterprise. This criticism hailed from both sides of the political spectrum and from all walks of life. Devout Protestants, for example, regarded gambling as a dishonor to God and an open door and window to worse sins. Others feared that a proliferation of gambling would divert resources away from other worthwhile causes, such as education.

In 1964, the tax-averse state of New Hampshire established the first modern government-run lottery. More than a dozen other states followed in quick succession. Despite the skepticism of naysayers, these new lotteries proved to be a success. The national lottery boomed in the late twentieth century as Americans’ appetite for unimaginable wealth grew alongside a decline in the financial security enjoyed by most working people. The gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security declined, health-care costs rose, and America’s longstanding national promise that hard work and education would make most children better off than their parents ceased to be true.

Advocates of state-run lotteries seized upon this economic discontent to market their games. They dropped the notion that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget and began to promote it as a way to fund a specific line item, often one that was popular and nonpartisan, such as education, elder care, or public parks. The narrower argument made it easier for voters to support the lottery, since a vote in favor was not seen as a vote to endorse gambling; instead, it was a vote to spend money on something the state already valued. In addition, the ability of lotteries to advertise their jackpots in dazzling terms increased as the top prizes grew to ever-increasing amounts.