The Growing Popularity of the Lottery

A game in which tokens are sold for a chance to win a prize, such as a cash award or an automobile. Lotteries are commonly sponsored by governments or other organizations as a way to raise funds. They are often regulated and have become popular as an alternative to paying taxes. The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history in many cultures, but the modern lottery was first introduced to public life as a source of money in the nineteenth century. Its popularity has grown ever since. In the United States, almost every state has a lottery, and the industry is a major source of revenue for the government.

In a readable and lively book, Stephen Cohen looks at the development of state lotteries and the factors that contribute to their success. He shows that the rise of lottery popularity parallels a decline in financial security for most working Americans, beginning with the nineteen-sixties and accelerating during the decade that followed. It is the irony of our times, writes Cohen, that the American obsession with enormous wealth and with winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot has coincided with a steady loss of economic security for most of the nation’s workers.

During the nineteen-sixties, as many states were struggling to balance their budgets under the pressure of growing populations and rising costs (including social-welfare programs and wars), lottery advocates adapted their strategies. They stopped trying to sell the lottery as a panacea that would float the entire state budget and began to argue that it could pay for a single line item, always a popular one like education. The approach succeeded because it appealed to voters’ anxieties that their state government was spending too much, or worse, cutting its services.

It also worked because it bypassed ethical objections to gambling, by arguing that people were going to gamble anyway so why not let the state do it and pocket the profits? It was a reasonable argument, though not a very convincing one. It also provided cover for white voters to approve of state-run gambling, despite Protestant proscriptions against dice and cards.

But as the lottery’s popularity grew, it shifted away from that narrow strategy and moved into more general public-policy territory. It became a classic example of policy making piecemeal and incrementally, without any overall overview. As a result, few states have a coherent “lottery policy.”

The growth of the lottery has been fueled by super-sized jackpots, which draw the attention of news media and encourage people to buy tickets. These jackpots are not only lucrative for the promoters, who deduct the cost of prizes and promotional expenses from the pool; they also give the games free publicity on news sites and television. They also compel officials to keep the prizes large, even when it becomes obvious that the money is not being spent wisely. The resulting dynamic has led to a steady expansion of the industry, from traditional drawings to new games and innovations such as scratch-off tickets.