The Politics of the Lottery

In the United States alone, millions play the lottery every week. They contribute billions to the economy and, in some cases, believe they will win big. But the odds are against them. The fact is, most people don’t win the jackpot. So, why do people continue to buy tickets? The answer is simple: they enjoy gambling.

Making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history (and is mentioned in the Bible), but the modern state lottery is relatively recent, dating from New Hampshire’s first game in 1964. Since then, state lotteries have become wildly popular. They are now commonplace across the country, with 37 states and the District of Columbia having them.

Until the 1970s, most state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with tickets sold for a future drawing weeks or even months in the future. Innovations in that decade, however, changed the way the industry operated. For one thing, super-sized jackpots boosted sales, as the public was attracted to the prospect of winning big. These larger prizes also earned the games much-needed free publicity on news websites and television, a boost that can help keep ticket sales high even after the top prize has been won.

Another change was the introduction of scratch-off tickets. These could be purchased at convenience stores, and were priced significantly less than the traditional paper tickets. This helped increase sales for a new type of lottery game, while lowering the overall cost per ticket.

The promotion of a lottery is an inherently political act, and it is not always easy to balance the interests of the lottery’s target audience with its broader social obligations. In addition to drawing a wide range of ordinary citizens to the lottery, it cultivates specific constituencies including convenience store owners; lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers, who receive a portion of the revenue earmarked for education; and politicians who look to lotteries as a source of “painless” revenues.

But there is one message that lottery promoters are trying to communicate very clearly: winning the jackpot is a chance to get rich quickly. This is a very attractive proposition, especially in this era of economic inequality and limited opportunities for social mobility. It is an important part of the lottery’s promotional strategy, but it is a message that should be considered carefully. If the lottery is going to be promoted as a chance to get rich quickly, it should also be promoted as a risky activity with significant social costs.