Lottery is a fixture of American society, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year. Yet it’s also a hazard to one’s financial health and is a form of gambling that deserves scrutiny. Whether it’s the dream of a multimillion-dollar jackpot or the small glint of hope that maybe this time it will be different, lottery offers a glimpse into our obsession with unimaginable wealth.
The casting of lots to decide fates or material goods has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. But the modern lottery, in which participants pay for tickets and win prizes if their numbers are drawn by chance, is a relatively recent development. It was first introduced to the United States in the eighteenth century, and grew popular despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling and the fact that many American colonies did not allow the sale of dice or cards.
Initially, public lotteries were used to finance government projects or charitable causes. But they became widely used as a mechanism to collect “voluntary taxes,” providing a means for state governments to fund schools, towns, and military expeditions without rousing the ire of anti-tax voters. Public lotteries are now common in the United States, and the money they raise helps support such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Union, and King’s College, among others.
State governments promote lotteries as a way to generate painless revenue, with voters and politicians seeing the results of a lottery as “taxes for free.” And studies show that the popularity of a lottery is related to the perception that its proceeds are devoted to a public good—in this case education. But it is unclear how meaningful this revenue is in broader state budgets, or if the trade-off to citizens who spend money on tickets is worth the effort.
For the past half-century, state legislatures and voters have been increasingly willing to accept a lottery as a solution to budget problems. In most cases, a lottery requires approval of both the state legislature and the public in a referendum. Lottery critics typically focus on the problem of compulsive gambling or the alleged regressive impact on low-income communities, but both of these issues are less pressing than the basic fact that the lottery is an expensive form of taxation.
The lottery is an integral part of America’s political life. But as the economic climate worsens, it may be a mistake to assume that public support for it is based on a genuine concern for education or other important issues. The real reason seems to be that voters want states to spend more money, and the politicians see lotteries as a way of delivering on this demand without upsetting voters by raising taxes. The results of this dynamic are still being played out.