The Politics of the Lottery

The lottery is a popular pastime in which players pay money to have an equal chance of winning a prize. They can win cash prizes or goods and services. The first step is to purchase a ticket for a specified amount of money, then the lottery company draws numbers and distributes the prizes according to those numbers. It’s a game of chance that has many critics and is usually considered gambling. A large portion of the population plays the lottery every week, contributing billions of dollars annually to state coffers.

The drawing of lots has a long history in human society, and the distribution of material rewards has been practiced since ancient times. It was used as a means of decision-making and divination. It is also an important element of games of chance, such as gambling and sport. It is often seen as a form of social control and a way to provide assistance to the poor.

In colonial America, lotteries were an essential source of finance for public and private endeavors. They financed roads, libraries, churches, canals, bridges, schools, and colleges. Some of these lotteries were run by private corporations, while others were conducted by the colonial governments themselves. In the latter case, the proceeds of the lotteries were devoted to public service, such as education and militia training.

Lotteries became widespread in England and the American colonies, despite Protestant proscription against gambling. They were especially attractive to politicians because of their ability to generate “painless” revenue for the government without raising taxes or cutting other spending. Lottery advertising is designed to maximize revenues and must therefore target specific groups of people to convince them to spend their money. But this marketing strategy may be at cross-purposes with the overall public interest.

In an anti-tax era, the reliance on “painless” lottery revenues can lead to political incentives for states to promote more forms of gambling. It can be difficult for political officials to resist these pressures, particularly when the results of state policies have negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers.

While there are a number of factors that influence lottery play, it is clear that socio-economic group differences exist. Men and blacks tend to play more frequently than women, Hispanics and the elderly. The poor play disproportionately less, but they do participate. The lottery’s role as a vehicle for helping the poor can be questioned when the odds of winning are so small. Nevertheless, the popularity of lotteries persists and is growing, even in states with low incomes. The question is how much longer this can continue. For the moment, the lottery is a lucrative business for both its operators and for state governments. But its future is unclear, as the economics of running a lottery are not sustainable in an era of fiscal austerity. This article is an excerpt from The Atlantic Monthly’s “The Lottery,” September 2010. Click here to read the full issue. To subscribe to the magazine, visit our subscription page.