The Growing Popularity of Lotteries

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible). However, public lotteries for material gain are relatively recent. In the seventeenth century, they began to be used by private and public organizations to raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. By the twentieth century, they had become a popular source of revenue in many countries.

State governments embraced lotteries in the 1960s, primarily to generate cash for public works programs without increasing taxes. In the 1990s, six more states joined the lottery game—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota—and many retailers, including convenience stores, drugstores, supermarkets, service stations, and restaurants and bars began to offer the tickets.

One factor in the growth of lotteries is that people like to see their money go toward a cause they support. The proceeds from a lottery can be argued to be “better spent” than tax dollars, and the games have earned broad public approval in times of economic stress. However, studies show that the popularity of a lottery is not directly related to a state’s actual fiscal circumstances.

Super-sized jackpots also drive lottery sales, and they earn the games a windfall of free publicity on news websites and newscasts. But there are serious concerns about the promotion of gambling, particularly its alleged negative consequences for poor and problem gamblers.