The Rise of the Lottery

The casting of lots has a long record in human history, dating at least to the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and into the early modern period, when lottery games proliferated as a popular party game and as a painless form of taxation. Lotteries were also widely used to distribute money for a variety of public usages, including aiding the poor. The oldest running lottery, the Dutch Staatsloterij, dates from 1726.

The revival of lotteries in America started with New Hampshire, which began its state-run lottery in 1964, and the model was copied by virtually all states. By the nineteen-seventies, American obsession with unimaginable wealth, reflected in lottery jackpot dreams, coincided with a collapse in financial security for the majority of working Americans. With job and pension protection eroding, the cost of health care skyrocketing, and inflation soaring, many states found it impossible to balance their budget without raising taxes or cutting services.

So they resorted to the lottery—a popular, easy-to-organize, low-cost way to raise money for any state purpose. Typically, state lotteries develop extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (whose cash registers are lined with lottery tickets); suppliers of instant tickets and scratch-offs; teachers (in states in which part of the proceeds is earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue). The message state lotteries rely on primarily is that, even if you don’t win, you should feel good about yourself because you’re doing a civic duty by buying a ticket.