The Evolution of the Lottery

The casting of lots for property and other goods has a long history, including in the Bible. The lottery, however, is more recent as a method of raising money for public purposes. The Continental Congress voted to establish a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for the Revolution; this failed, but private lotteries continued and became very popular. In America, they helped to finance a number of colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia). George Washington sponsored a lottery to help build the first road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lotteries also played a significant role in early American colonial life, as towns held them to raise funds for such things as paving streets, constructing wharves, and helping the poor.

State lotteries have long been promoted as a source of “painless” revenue: players voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of the general public. This narrative obscures that the vast majority of people who play lotteries are committed gamblers who disproportionately spend a significant proportion of their incomes on tickets. It also obscures the regressive nature of the revenue generated by lotteries, with revenues distributed disproportionately among low-income communities.

Many states now offer daily numbers and scratch-off games to generate revenue. The revenue from these games typically expands dramatically at the time of their introduction, but eventually begins to plateau and even decline. Lottery officials respond to this decline by introducing new games and increasing their promotional effort. But these strategies are not likely to be successful in addressing the regressive nature of lottery revenue, and they do little to address the problems associated with addiction to gambling.

State lotteries are a classic example of how policy is often made piecemeal and incrementally, with limited or no overall oversight. As a result, few if any governments have a coherent gambling or lotteries policy. The evolution of lotteries is also a good illustration of how authority and pressures are fragmented between agencies and within each agency, with little or no consideration of the general public welfare. As a result, lottery officials inherit policies and a dependency on revenues that they can do little or nothing to change. This makes it especially difficult for them to take a holistic view of the overall effects of their operations on society. This is a major reason why the regressive nature of lottery revenues has not been addressed in any meaningful way by any of the states that operate lotteries. The most effective and responsible way to reduce these regressive effects is for lottery officials to recognize the problem and implement solutions that address the underlying issues. Until that happens, lotteries will remain a potent weapon in the arsenal of gambling addiction. Despite their popularity, the truth is that they are not the answer to our growing gambling addiction problem. Instead, we need to focus on prevention and treatment programs that will work. This is a difficult task, but it is the only way to protect our future.