The Evolution of the Lottery

While the lottery seems to be the work of our times, its roots are older than Instagram and the Kardashians. Although casting decisions and determining fates by lot has an ancient record (including several instances in the Bible), state lotteries emerged only in the modern era, after America’s nineteenth century boom waned and governments became increasingly aware of all the money to be made from gambling. At the same time, budget deficits loomed, and balancing state spending without raising taxes or cutting services proved extremely difficult for many states, especially those with generous social safety nets.

The result was that, by the nineteen-sixties, state lotteries grew in popularity and reached a point where the revenue from tickets exceeded the cost of government services. This success was based on a number of factors, including a general sense that there is “money to be made” in the gambling industry and that it is relatively risk-free, compared with other types of investments. It also helped that state lottery revenues are earmarked for specific uses. The earliest state lotteries, for example, were used to build churches and municipal repairs; Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth were all partially funded by lotteries; and Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise funds for cannons to fight the Revolutionary War.

But the expansion of state lotteries into new games prompted new issues as well. As the profits from traditional games reached a plateau, the industry turned to new products like scratch-off tickets with lower prize amounts but higher odds of winning. This led to a more aggressive effort to promote the lottery and raised the public’s expectations of what could be won.

As the number of winners grew, jackpots grew larger, too. This trend accelerated when the lottery industry discovered that newsworthy mega-prizes not only drive ticket sales, but they also earn free publicity on websites and television newscasts. This, in turn, enables the prize amounts to increase again and again until the jackpot becomes so huge that it can’t be ignored.

This evolution of the lottery exemplifies a fundamental problem in the way that public policy is created. Decisions about state lotteries are typically made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight, and the authority for these decisions is divided between and within legislative and executive branches. As a result, few, if any, states have a coherent gambling or lottery policy.

This lack of a coherent policy has led to a host of problems, from compulsive gambling to alleged regressive effects on low-income groups. But perhaps the biggest issue is that, when it comes to the lottery, no one can be sure what they are actually voting for. This is because the lottery is a gamble with people’s hopes and dreams. And, as the example of Denmark Vesey shows, those dreams are often tangled up with the ugliest parts of human history.