In an era of rising inequality and shrinking social safety nets, a lottery-like fantasy of unlimited wealth attracts millions of people. But it’s important to remember that winning a lottery jackpot is an extremely rare event. And it’s also important to understand that those who win a lotto have a much higher risk of going bankrupt within a few years than those who don’t.
In his book “The Lottery,” the historian Alex Cohen explains how the modern version of lottery evolved. The lottery’s rise began, he writes, when growing awareness of the huge sums that could be won in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-sixties, America’s prosperity began to wane, and the burdens of an expanding population and the costs of the Vietnam War made balancing state budgets increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services.
The states were not prepared to do either of these things, and so they turned to the lottery. The first state-run lottery was approved in New Hampshire in 1964, and the number of states offering lottery-style games continued to grow. In most cases, the states paid a large fee to private companies for lottery advertising and promotion. This allowed them to raise billions in ticket sales without provoking a backlash from the anti-tax hordes.
At the same time, a lot of people began to view buying a lottery ticket as a low-risk investment. In addition to the potential for big wins, lottery tickets can be a convenient way to save money for retirement or college tuition. But the fact is, as a group lottery players contribute billions to government receipts that could be better spent on education, health care, or public parks. And, like all commercial products, lottery sales tend to increase in periods of economic decline and when they are advertised heavily in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or Black.
After legalization advocates were no longer able to sell the lottery as a silver bullet for every state’s budget, they settled on claiming that it would fund a single line item, always some sort of popular, nonpartisan government service, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks. By limiting their pitch, they were able to persuade voters that a vote for the lottery was not a vote against the services those voters valued most.
The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun “lot”, meaning fate. It was common in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century to hold public lotteries for building town fortifications and for charity to the poor. By the seventeenth century, it had made its way to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery in 1569. It is the oldest running lottery in the world. The game has since spread to many other nations. In the United States, more than half of all adults participate in a lottery at least once each year. The federal government estimates that Americans spend about $80 billion on lottery tickets each year.