The Popularity of the Lottery

The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which prizes, such as cash or goods, are awarded by a process that relies wholly on chance. It has a long history in the West; indeed, the casting of lots for decisions and determining fates by the power of luck has a biblical record. It became a regular feature of public life in the sixteenth century, with the first recorded public lotteries to offer tickets for prize money appearing in the town records of Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges. The modern state-run lottery was inaugurated in 1964 by New Hampshire, which was a model for the thirteen states that followed. The rise of the modern lottery coincided with a crisis in state funding. America’s prosperity in the immediate post-World War II period had waned, with population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War straining state coffers. It became increasingly difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were unpopular with voters.

The popularity of the lottery, therefore, seemed like a solution. In addition to the public’s fascination with the prospect of winning big, the game offered a convenient revenue stream for the states. Unlike state taxes on income or sales, the profits from a lottery would not diminish with time. In addition, lotteries were popular with politicians who feared being seen as “taxers” and who needed to appeal to voters in the face of a growing tide of tax resentment.

Lotteries have broad, cross-sectional support, as evidenced by the fact that 60% of adults play in a state that has one. But they also have specific constituencies, including convenience-store operators (who can sell tickets); suppliers to the industry (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers in states where some lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and, of course, players themselves.

Those who play regularly are clear-eyed about the odds. They know that there is a small probability of losing some of their money, and they are not above putting in the effort to maximize their chances of winning. They also understand the value of non-monetary benefits, such as entertainment or the satisfaction that comes from a smart betting strategy. If the overall utility derived from a ticket purchase is sufficiently high, then purchasing one is a rational decision for them.

The real problem with the lottery is that it diverts resources from things people should be doing to increase their financial security and build savings, such as saving for retirement or paying off debt. The bottom line is that the millions of people who spend billions each year on lottery tickets are losing thousands in foregone savings opportunities every year. Moreover, the large amounts of money that are won in the lottery can lead to addiction and other behavioral problems if used for the wrong purposes. It is not surprising, then, that the lottery has been linked to other forms of gambling and criminal behavior.