The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for prizes. Lottery has existed for thousands of years, dating back to the Old Testament and the Book of Songs (2nd millennium BC). Today, 37 states have a state lottery. Lotteries are popular among all segments of the population and generate substantial revenues. Many states use the money to fund education and other public services. Nevertheless, critics argue that the lottery promotes addictive gambling behavior, has a negative impact on public welfare and increases income inequality. They also contend that the state is faced with an inherent conflict between its desire to increase revenue and its duty to protect the interests of the public.

It’s a sly, inextricable human impulse to gamble, and the lottery is designed to capitalize on it. Its advertisements are ubiquitous and the prize money is dazzling. Billboards dangle the promise of instant riches and entice people to spend what little money they have on tickets. There is, of course, a dark underbelly to this phenomenon—as any good historian or sociology student will tell you, it is very easy for people to fall into the trap of compulsive gambling.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders. Francis I of France encouraged them, and they remained popular until the 17th century, when Louis XIV’s court was suspected of winning top prizes. After that, the popularity of lotteries declined.

Lotteries can be a useful source of painless revenue, especially during times of economic stress. They are a convenient way for politicians to raise taxes without the political cost of raising unemployment benefits, cutting public education budgets, or increasing sales tax rates. However, research shows that the popularity of lotteries is not connected to the state government’s actual fiscal condition. It is mainly a matter of perceptions about the lottery’s purpose and the degree to which it is perceived to benefit the public good.

In addition, lotteries have become increasingly complex and sophisticated. The increased complexity has contributed to the growing number of complaints and lawsuits against the industry. It has also contributed to an expansion of the number of players and the emergence of a new type of player, the “micro-lottery,” which is played online.

A key factor in the success of state lotteries is the extent to which they develop broad and specific constituencies. This includes convenience store owners (lotteries are frequently advertised in their stores); lottery suppliers (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (in states that earmark lotteries’ proceeds for education); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue. This type of “political lobbying” helps explain why the revival of state lotteries has followed a pattern that is almost identical in every state since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state-sponsored lotteries in 1964.