The lottery, as a way to win big money, is a remarkably successful enterprise. Americans spend $70 billion a year playing the game, and its popularity has only increased as state governments have struggled to balance budgets and respond to the rising cost of social services, education, and warfare. In the immediate post-World War II period, America was able to expand its array of services without especially onerous taxes on middle-class and working-class citizens; but by the nineteen-sixties, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War began to chip away at that arrangement, and state coffers drained as the nation went into an economic recession.
At this point, many states started lotteries—most notably in the Northeast and the Rust Belt—as a way to increase revenue. Lotteries were hailed as budgetary miracles, a way for states to make money appear out of nowhere without having to raise taxes or cut services, which they knew would be unpopular with voters.
But the idea that lotteries are a good thing is misguided. The money they generate is a drop in the bucket of state revenues, and they only help to cover the costs of a few core services. In a world of rising inequality and limited social mobility, the state should not be dangling the possibility of instant riches to those who cannot afford to play.
What’s more, studies have shown that people who receive scratch tickets as gifts are more likely to gamble—and lose. In addition, it has been found that lottery players are disproportionately young, and the percentage of men who play more often than women peaks in their twenties and thirties and then declines slightly in their forties, fifties, and sixties.
The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun lot, which means fate or chance. It is believed that the practice of drawing lots to determine possessions dates back centuries, and it is attested to in the Old Testament, where Moses is instructed to take a census of Israel and distribute its land by lot; and in ancient Rome, where the emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property.
In colonial America, the practice became widespread and helped finance roads, canals, churches, schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals, and even wars. In the 1740s, for example, lottery proceeds helped establish Columbia and Princeton Universities, as well as the Academy Lottery in Philadelphia.
In the modern era, however, lotteries have come to be associated with bad public policy and skewed results. In an era in which the federal government is cutting social programs and states are struggling to maintain essential services, it is time to reconsider their role. The answer is not to start new lotteries or expand existing ones. Instead, states should rethink the ways they market and regulate them. They should also take steps to limit access to their products by requiring that people prove they are eligible to purchase them. This may prevent them from becoming a vehicle for addiction and other gambling-related problems, while also limiting the impact that they have on vulnerable groups.