The Growing Popularity of the Lottery

Gambling Aug 23, 2023

The casting of lots to determine rights, property, and even life or death has a long record in human history. Its use as a method for raising funds has been even longer. The earliest known public lottery was held during the Roman Empire for repairs in the city of Rome. Lotteries were also common entertainment at dinner parties, with guests receiving tickets that could be exchanged for prizes at the end of a night of Saturnalian revelry.

In the modern era, state-run lotteries have become increasingly popular. Initially, they were promoted as ways for states to raise revenue without incurring an unpopular tax increase. State officials and voters alike often see lottery revenues as “voluntary taxes,” in which players pay to support a particular public good, such as education. This appeal is especially strong in times of economic stress, when states need to find new sources of money without enraging an anti-tax electorate.

After New Hampshire approved the first modern state-run lottery in 1964, other states followed suit, most of them in the Northeast and Rust Belt. Initially, lottery revenues expanded rapidly, but as more states adopted them, revenue growth slowed. A key factor is that, once established, lotteries develop broad specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (as regular vendors); lottery suppliers (whose heavily subsidized advertising is widely seen as an effective way to attract customers); teachers (in states where the proceeds are earmarked for education); state legislators; and citizens who regularly play the games.

While the majority of lottery participants are clear-eyed about the odds of winning, they have their share of fans who cling to irrational “systems” to increase their chances of success. These people have quote-unquote “systems” for predicting lucky numbers, selecting the best day to buy their tickets, and choosing what types of tickets to purchase. Some have even formed their own private corporations to manage their ticket purchases.

A growing number of critics charge that the lottery is deceptive, noting that it squanders public money on sham promotions and falsely inflates jackpots. They point to the fact that many lottery advertising campaigns portray winners as happy and successful, while obscuring the fact that they have won at one-in-three-million odds or worse.

Moreover, research shows that the poor are disproportionately less likely to participate in the lottery, and that they win substantially less than the rich. Consequently, state lotteries depend heavily on high-income neighborhoods for their revenues and on middle-income neighborhoods for their players. This has led to a steady decline in the share of tickets purchased from low-income neighborhoods since the mid-1970s. In recent years, however, some innovations have increased the percentage of lottery tickets sold from lower-income neighborhoods. These include the advent of instant games like scratch-off tickets, which have smaller prize amounts but still offer good odds of winning. In addition, the popularity of televised instant games is attracting lower-income people into the lottery fold. While these developments may help to restore the relative popularity of the lottery, it is unlikely that the overall number of players will grow substantially.