The Expansion of the Lottery

Gambling Jun 11, 2023


The practice of dividing property or determining fates by lot is a fairly ancient one. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of the people of Israel and divide their land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries for slaves and other valuables during Saturnalian feasts. In modern times, lotteries have become popular forms of entertainment and fundraising. The earliest recorded state-sponsored lotteries took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns held public drawing events to raise money for town fortifications and poor relief.

In the early 1960s, states began enacting laws to allow them to offer lottery games. This was partly a reaction to the financial crisis that had just swept the nation, but it also was motivated by a desire to raise revenue without raising taxes on lower- and middle-class residents.

State lotteries have since grown into multi-billion dollar enterprises that draw more and more players each year. In addition, the popularity of lottery games has spread to many nations around the world.

While state governments may claim that lotteries are a “safe” form of gambling that does not promote addictive behavior, critics point out that there are significant risks associated with these activities. For example, the chances of winning a lottery jackpot are astronomically slim (statistically there is a greater chance that you will be struck by lightning or become a billionaire than to win the Mega Millions lottery). Furthermore, the large sums of money on offer can lead to compulsive gambling behavior, and even those who do successfully strike it lucky often find themselves worse off than they were before they won.

Nevertheless, state legislators appear determined to continue expanding the range of lottery games available to their citizens. In order to do so, they are relying on a familiar pattern: a state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, due to a constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the lottery in size and complexity.

The problem with this expansion is that, as the number of available games grows, the amount of money that can be won by a single player diminishes. This is because the prize amounts advertised are usually considerably lower than the total of ticket sales. This is a key reason why lottery advertising is so brash and misleading, featuring claims of huge winnings that are almost always significantly less than the actual jackpot value (since most jackpots are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the actual payout amount). Moreover, critics charge that the vast majority of lottery participants are from middle-class neighborhoods, while far fewer play from high- or low-income areas.