What Does the Lottery Say About Our Society?

In the modern world, lotteries are a big business and a popular form of gambling. They raise billions of dollars annually, and the jackpots that can be won are often newsworthy and lucrative. But their history has been a long and sometimes rocky one in the United States, as public and private games of chance. Today, lottery players spend around $100 billion per year on tickets. But what does the lottery say about our society?

It is tempting to view the lottery as a triumph of individualism. After all, many people enjoy having a flutter and, with the best of intentions, would enjoy winning. And the winner can genuinely help others with their loot. But it is also true that the lottery makes it possible for one person to have all of its loot, if pimpish randomness decrees it. The result is that, much like the poll tax, lottery wins can make the poor pay for the rich, especially when ticket sales are highest among the low paid.

Historically, the lottery has been seen as a way to generate revenue for a wide range of government purposes. It has been used to finance public works projects, build city halls, support education and more. The first modern government-run lottery was established in Puerto Rico in 1934, followed by New Hampshire in 1964. Many state-run lotteries now offer multiple game formats, including a number game, an instant ticket and keno. Some also have scratch-off games.

The popularity of lotteries as a source of state revenue has increased in recent years. In the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War eroded America’s prosperity, balancing state budgets became increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries, with their promise of relatively low taxes and large prizes, offered a solution to this dilemma.

As Cohen explains, the argument went like this: Since gamblers are going to gamble anyway, why not give them a government-sponsored alternative that benefits their own communities? This argument was appealing to voters of many different ideological stripes. For example, some whites endorsed the lottery because they believed that legalization would decriminalize numbers players and reduce friction between police officers and Black residents, who frequently stopped them for nothing more than playing the game.

As Cohen explains, however, these concerns eventually receded as America’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt intensified. California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978, cut property taxes by almost sixty percent and inspired other states to follow suit. In addition, federal money that had previously bolstered state coffers began to dry up. As a result, in the early-nineteen-eighties, the growth of state lotteries accelerated. By the early twenty-first century, they accounted for more than half of all state gaming revenue.