The Growing Popularity of the Lottery


Lottery is a game in which you pay money for a chance to win something (often a large sum of cash) by matching numbers. In the United States, there are two types of lottery: state-sponsored and private. State-sponsored lotteries are operated by the government, and the prizes they award may range from housing units to school placements. Private lotteries are not operated by the government and offer prizes that may include cars, vacations, or cash.

While casting lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, the modern use of lotteries as revenue generators is much more recent. New Hampshire, famously tax-averse, approved its first state lottery in 1964; thirteen more states followed suit in the nineteen seventies and eighties. For politicians, lotteries provided an opportunity to increase spending without raising taxes. They were “budgetary miracles, the chance for states to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air,” Cohen writes.

But the lottery did more than create an easy source of state funds; it also reshaped people’s beliefs about wealth and luck. People who played the lottery believed that the initial odds were so high that it didn’t matter how they played; they would wind up rich someday anyway. This, combined with a rising sense of meritocracy that had been fueled by the success of television shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol,” gave Americans the false belief that their hard work and talent would enable them to escape from poverty and achieve great wealth.

As the lottery became a more integral part of American life, complaints about it shifted from ethical issues like its effect on compulsive gamblers to more substantive concerns about its impact on low-income groups and its overall regressive effects. These concerns, however, were not a response to the lottery’s existence but rather its growing popularity and the changing attitudes of the public.

In the nineteen eighties and nineties, income inequality began to widen, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the national promise that children of working parents will be better off than their parents ceased to ring true. It was in this context that the lottery grew more popular than ever, as it became a vehicle for aspiring to unimaginable wealth and the hope that the jackpot would somehow rewrite their lives.

The word “lottery” comes from the Latin loterie, meaning a drawing of lots. The earliest state-sponsored lotteries offered goods or services such as land and slaves. More recently, state-sponsored lotteries have been used to give away everything from sports draft picks to subsidized housing. A private lottery can be arranged between individuals, groups or businesses to award a prize for an event or activity. For instance, many schools award kindergarten placements by lottery, and judges often draw the names of litigants to decide who will be assigned a case.