The Popularity of Lotteries

Lotteries are a popular way for governments to raise funds, and have long enjoyed broad public support. Critics, however, argue that they are also a major source of addictive gambling behavior and are often viewed as a regressive tax on poorer people. They are criticized for expanding the number of people who are drawn into gambling, and are said to contribute to social problems such as domestic violence, drug abuse, and gambling addiction.

Despite these criticisms, lottery supporters maintain that state-run gambling is acceptable because it benefits the state. Lottery revenues are supposed to provide money for a specific public good, such as education. This argument is particularly effective during periods of economic stress, when state governments face the prospect of higher taxes or budget cuts. But studies have shown that the popularity of lotteries is not related to a state government’s actual fiscal condition. Lotteries have won widespread public approval even when state governments are in excellent financial health.

While the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, modern lotteries are relatively new. The first lottery to distribute prize money was a private one in 1466, and the first public one was held in Rome for municipal repairs in 1612. In colonial America, lotteries were used to finance both public and private ventures, including roads, canals, churches, schools, and colleges. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

In recent decades, the popularity of lotteries has risen with the prosperity of working Americans. It has corresponded to a decline in financial security for most people, as the income gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security diminished, health-care costs rose, and unemployment increased. Lotteries have tapped into this national obsession with instant wealth. The jackpots are huge, and they generate massive advertising revenues. Lottery billboards are everywhere.

But is there something more going on here than just an inextricable human impulse to gamble? In The Lottery, Shirley Jackson describes a small town where the rituals and traditions surrounding the lottery are so inextricable from local life that the town itself seems to be a kind of living, breathing entity. Every family gets a set of tickets, which they keep hidden in a box. The winning numbers are chosen by a drawing of all the tickets, which takes place at the end of the evening. The winning ticket is then revealed, and the family gets to spend a night out together or perhaps even buy a new car.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”), which is believed to have been borrowed from Middle French loterie (action of drawing lots), itself a calque on Middle Dutch lotinge “action of drawing lots.” So, while it’s true that some numbers appear more often than others, it’s important to remember that random chance produces these results. The odds of selecting a certain number are just as high as any other number, and so the chances of winning are essentially the same for everyone.