The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history. But the lottery, in which people pay a fee to win a prize, is far more recent. Its origins are obscure, but it may have been adapted from a medieval game called hectographia, which was used to award property in feudal Europe. The lottery became popular in England, and was brought to America by colonists despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Its spread was helped along by the fact that a prize of money or land was an attractive alternative to taxation, which was usually very high.
Early state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with participants buying tickets for a drawing that might occur weeks or even months into the future. But as technology improved, lotteries began to offer “instant games,” where the public could buy a ticket at a check-cashing store or supermarket and instantly have the chance to win a prize. Instant games were much more popular than the old-style drawings, and they required less time to manage, leading to a rapid expansion of sales.
Lottery revenues rose and grew, but eventually they began to level off and then decline. This is not unusual for public-sector businesses, but it’s especially troubling when the business in question is a state lottery. So, to keep revenues rising, lotteries have to introduce new games to the public almost constantly. They also need to advertise a constant stream of enticing promotions and keep promoting the idea that winning the jackpot would be a great way to change your life.
All of this advertising is designed to evoke the same psychological effect that drugs and video games do: addiction. And, like those industries, state lotteries haven’t been above utilizing some fairly dark tactics to do so. In the past, for example, some lottery ads were designed to show that a lottery is no different than a Snickers bar.
One reason that the state lottery industry is so dependent on addictive psychology is that, in most states, lotteries are not governed by a central agency. Instead, they are run by the legislative or executive branch of a state, and the authority over them is fragmented and diffuse. As a result, few, if any, states have a coherent “gambling policy” or, in many cases, a lottery policy at all.
It’s not surprising that the lottery is so addictive and regressive, because it sends a very clear message to most players: You’ll never get rich, but there’s always a chance you will. In this sense, the lottery is a reminder of how little our long-held national promise that hard work and education will yield wealth has been kept true for most working Americans. The obsession with unimaginable riches has coincided with a decline in the financial security of most families, as income inequality widens, pensions and job security disappear, health-care costs skyrocket, and the dream of winning the lottery has turned into an elusive pipe dream.