A lottery is an arrangement in which entrants pay money to choose numbers, and prizes are awarded if enough of those numbers match those randomly chosen by machines. The term also applies to competitions that require a degree of skill after the first stage and which distribute prizes based on chance, though most of those arrangements are not legal lotteries.

The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible, but the lottery’s popularity as a source of material wealth has grown only recently. In the fourteenth century, European cities sponsored lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they spread throughout England and America. They were often a way for colonists to avoid paying taxes, but they soon came to serve as a form of charity.

In the nineteen-seventies and accelerating in the eighties, Americans’ obsession with the unimaginable riches of lottery jackpots coincided with a decline in the financial security of most working people. Job security and pensions eroded, housing costs rose, health-care expenses grew, the gap between rich and poor widened, and the national promise that hard work would yield financial prosperity ceased to be true for many.

As state revenue and profits fell, lotteries’ advocates began ginning up new arguments for legalization. No longer arguing that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they started to claim that it could cover only one line item, invariably a government service that was popular and nonpartisan—often education or elder care or public parks. This narrower approach made it easy to sell, Cohen notes. A vote in favor of a lottery became a vote against raising property taxes or cutting spending on education.

Another argument that had merit was the idea that since people were going to gamble anyway, it was better for governments to pocket the profits. This line of reasoning had its limits, but it did provide moral cover for people who approved of the lottery despite long-standing ethical objections to gambling.

In the end, lottery marketers are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. Everything about their advertising campaigns, the design of their scratch-off tickets, and even the math behind their games is designed to keep potential bettors engaged—in a manner not unlike that of tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.

Posted in Gambling