Lottery is an increasingly common way for state governments to raise money, but the history of this particular type of gambling is a complicated one. Most states begin with a legislative monopoly; establish a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery; start with only a small number of fairly simple games; and then, under constant pressure for additional revenue, progressively expand their offerings.
The idea of determining fates and decisions by casting lots has long been in use, but the earliest recorded public lottery was held during the Roman Empire for repairs to city streets. More recently, lottery games have been used for commercial promotions, military conscription, and even for jury selection. But for many Americans, the lottery represents a chance to gamble with a modest sum of money for the promise of a large reward.
Most state governments promote the lottery with an argument that it provides a source of “painless” revenue, whereby people are voluntarily spending their money for the benefit of the public good (see fig 1). This is a particularly appealing argument during periods of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases or cuts in programs might be daunting. However, research has found that the objective fiscal health of a state does not appear to have any significant influence on whether or when a lottery is adopted.
While the regressive nature of the lottery is a real concern, it’s important to understand that this is not what draws most people to play. The bulk of lottery players come from the bottom 21st through 60th percentiles of income distribution. These are people with a couple of dollars in their pocket for discretionary spending but not much hope to get ahead through hard work or entrepreneurship.
These are also the people who spend the most on lottery tickets. They have a couple of hours or days to dream, to imagine the big win. And while they know the odds are long, they believe that for the right combination of numbers, the big win will come. And if it doesn’t, at least they had a little fun.
What is more troubling about the lottery, then, is not its regressivity but that it offers this false hope to a segment of society that might have trouble finding it elsewhere. The lottery has become a kind of scapegoat for their inarticulate frustration with their lives, their anger at a system that seems rigged against them, and their need to find some way out. In a society that has lost its moral compass, the lottery may offer the only means for many to escape the cynical, amoral, and insidious ravages of modern life.