The Evolution of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular game in which players pay money for the chance to win prizes based on the random selection of numbers. In the US, state-run lotteries raise money for everything from schools to highway construction. The history of lotteries is both long and complicated, with the practice dating back to ancient times. But in recent decades, the popularity of state-sponsored lotteries has exploded, even as the economics of running them have become increasingly problematic.

In the early modern period, the casting of lots to decide ownership or other rights was common in Europe and Asia. The lottery, in which participants paid a small amount of money to enter a drawing for a prize, evolved from this, with the first public lotteries in the West being held in the sixteenth century, raising funds for town fortifications and other public uses.

During the late twentieth century, as Cohen points out, states’ desire to boost tax revenue led them to adopt lotteries in a number of ways: lottery sales increased as wages and unemployment rose; families’ financial security crumbled as they struggled to meet their bills and provide for their children; and the nation’s old national promise that hard work and education would allow people to leave their parents’ financial circumstances behind grew more distant.

Once established, state lotteries evolve in a manner similar to other government agencies and corporations: they legislate their monopoly; set up a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand their offerings of games, drawing methods, and prize sizes. While these expansions may be based on sound marketing and mathematical analysis, they are also often driven by the desire to please winners and potential bettors alike.

As with many forms of commercial products, such as cigarettes or video games, state lottery officials are adept at the use of psychology and the manipulation of demand to keep their products in consumers’ hands. They promote their games in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino; advertise heavily on television and radio; and make the game’s appearance as easy as possible for those who want to play it, by offering tickets at check-cashing venues and other places where cash is readily available.

In addition, the lottery is an example of how public policy tends to be made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. In the case of state-sponsored lotteries, this results in the emergence of complex policies that are not subject to regular review by elected representatives and the public at large. This is especially true in a democracy where the separation of power is fragmented, with authority (and therefore pressures on lottery officials) scattered between the legislative and executive branches and further divided within each. As a result, few states have what might be called a coherent “lottery policy.” Instead, the industry operates by self-serving rules that are largely beyond public scrutiny.