The Evolution of the Lottery

Lotteries are a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers for a prize. Some governments outlaw them, while others endorse them to the extent of organizing a state or national lottery.

The lottery evolved in the United States from a practice common in Europe. It was used to fund towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects.

In the early nineteenth century, lottery organizers claimed that their operations could float most of a state’s budget. This claim proved to be a falsehood; in fact, it was impossible for most states to maintain a balanced budget without raising taxes or cutting services.

By the nineteen-sixties, when state budgets were in the midst of a major deterioration due to inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, lottery advocates were no longer able to sell their proposal as a silver bullet. They found themselves having to offer a less dramatic alternative: an expansion of the lottery into a variety of nonpartisan government programs.

Those who advocated legalization of the lottery argued that it would help alleviate the growing financial crisis by generating new revenues that governments could use to bolster social services. But these claims were based on a faulty cost-benefit analysis that focused too much on the costs of gambling and not enough on the benefits of the lottery’s expansion into other lines of government.

As the lottery became more popular, critics began to focus on its impact on compulsive gamblers and on its alleged regressive impact on lower-income people. This criticism, which grew out of the ongoing evolution of the industry, also served to reinforce the perception that lotteries were an unpopular form of gambling.