The Evolution of the Lottery


As state governments grapple with fiscal crisis, they are turning to lotteries for a quick and painless infusion of cash. Lottery revenue, they argue, will allow them to expand services without raising taxes on middle-class and working families. This is a dangerous proposition for the health of America’s democracy.

Lotteries are a classic example of government policy made piecemeal, and their evolution often takes place in the absence of any governing body that can provide an overview or set a common agenda. In many states, lotteries have been established as “tax-exempt” operations, a way to raise money for public purposes without raising taxes on those who play them. Consequently, lottery decisions are being made in the dark, with the general welfare taking a back seat to revenue generation.

Historically, state lotteries have been little more than traditional raffles, with people buying tickets in advance of a drawing, which may be weeks or months away. In recent decades, however, a number of innovations have transformed the lottery industry. The most significant innovation has been the introduction of instant-gratification games, such as scratch-off tickets. These typically offer smaller prize amounts, but the odds of winning are significantly higher. These games have become a powerful marketing tool for the industry, as they appeal to people who may otherwise be reluctant to buy a ticket.

Another innovation has been the introduction of multi-state games, which increase the odds of winning a jackpot by combining prize money from multiple states. These games are not necessarily more fair, but they are certainly more attractive to some players. In addition to the increase in prize money, these games also allow people to choose their own numbers, which can sometimes lead to more satisfying results.

While these changes have been a boon to lottery revenues, they have also led to increased levels of player dissatisfaction. In fact, most players complain that the games are too addictive, and they have a hard time justifying the cost of tickets to their family or employers. As a result, the number of lottery players has declined in most states, while the overall size of prizes has stayed relatively stable.

The most striking feature of the modern lottery, though, is the message it conveys to those who buy tickets: Whether you win or lose, you should feel good about your participation because you are helping your state. This message ignores the fact that lotteries are not very effective at raising money for state needs, and that the bulk of those who play are disproportionately from middle-income neighborhoods. In fact, studies suggest that the poor participate in state lotteries at lower rates than their proportion of the population. These findings should refocus attention on the purpose of state lotteries and the way they are marketed.