Legalizing the Lottery

In America, lotteries owe their popularity to an inextricable human impulse to gamble. But their real power is in dangling the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. It’s no coincidence that the lottery’s growth coincided with a decline in financial security for working people—income disparity has increased, pensions and job security have eroded, health-care costs are skyrocketing, and the long-standing national promise that hard work and education will render you better off than your parents has come to resemble a myth.

Lotteries, which are games in which numbers are drawn to win prizes, have been around for hundreds of years. The earliest recorded examples were in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where public lotteries raised money for town fortifications and for the poor. In the seventeenth century, they grew even more popular as an entertaining amusement for dinner parties. The winners were awarded fancy articles, such as silverware.

Initially, advocates of legalizing lotteries claimed that they would fill state coffers without raising taxes and keep money in the pockets of average citizens. But as the evidence mounted, those claims proved unfounded. When the truth became clear, legalization advocates shifted tactics. They stopped arguing that a lottery would fund most of a state’s budget and started claiming that it could cover a single line item, often something popular and nonpartisan, such as education, elder care, or public parks.

This strategy shifted the debate away from whether to legalize the lottery or not and toward what sort of lottery would be best for the state. It also made it easy for voters to support legalization, since a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling but for some worthy government service.