Lottery is America’s most popular form of gambling. It’s also a significant source of state revenue, and defenders promote it as a painless way to raise taxes without hurting the poor or raising sales taxes, which are unpopular. But the money isn’t free, and its costs deserve scrutiny.
The modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with soaring population growth and the cost of the Vietnam War, states that had provided a generous social safety net found it difficult to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services. That’s when lottery advocates stepped in with a new strategy.
They started arguing that a statewide lottery could cover a specific line item in the budget, invariably some aspect of government that was popular and nonpartisan, such as education or senior services or park services. This was a better message than the old one, which implied that voting for a lottery was a vote against gambling, and it made it easier to sell the idea to voters.
But it’s important to note that, even when the odds of winning are bad, the fact that they’re bad doesn’t necessarily make people stop playing. The reason why is a mystery, but it probably has something to do with the sense that the lottery is a meritocratic enterprise and that anyone who buys tickets is going to be rich someday.