The Popularity of the Lottery

Throughout history, people have been drawn to the possibility of winning big sums by chance. The casting of lots is documented in the Bible, and lottery-like games were popular at banquets and Saturnalian feasts where pieces of wood with numbers on them were used as prizes. The practice became more formalized in the thirteenth century, when the king of England began to hold lotteries to fund public projects like building bridges. Lotteries were also common in colonial America, and in the 18th century they helped finance Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and other American colleges. While some critics have complained that lotteries promote gambling and are a form of bribery, there is little doubt that they have been effective as a source of state revenue.

But, as Cohen shows, a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding in the nineteen-sixties. As the cost of inflation and the Vietnam War soared, states found that they could not balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both options which were deeply unpopular with voters. So state officials looked to new sources of revenue, and the lottery was born.

While lottery critics have argued that the game is a tax on the stupid, the truth is that it is very popular among people with low incomes and few other economic prospects. These people have a high tolerance for the disutility of losing money, and they often enjoy the non-monetary value of playing the game—the excitement of dreaming about winning. In fact, many of them buy tickets regularly even though they know the odds are long and that their chances of winning are irrational.

Since lottery advertising is based on the idea that the more tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning, it can be misleading. Critics argue that the commercialization of the lottery has had adverse social consequences, notably in increasing the number of poor and problem gamblers. In addition, they say that because lottery promotions are geared toward maximizing profits rather than the quality of the prize money, it is unfair to ordinary citizens.

But the facts show that, despite these concerns, the popularity of the lottery has little to do with a state’s objective financial health and much more to do with the nature of the state’s culture and the degree of social inequality. As a result, it is here to stay. The only question is how quickly the industry will expand to take advantage of the opportunity for even greater profits and to increase its penetration in poor, minority communities. With the expansion of Internet-based gambling and the development of mobile phone gaming, the future looks bright for the lottery.