The Politics of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine property or rights has been a common practice for centuries. In the fourteenth century, European cities began using lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and charity for the poor. By the sixteenth century, state-sponsored lotteries had become common in England.

But as Cohen explains, it wasn’t until the nineteen sixties that growing awareness of the money to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. A combination of a swelling population, rising inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War was rapidly draining state coffers. Balancing budgets meant raising taxes or cutting services – options that were unpopular with voters.

With no other choices, many states turned to lotteries. The first modern state lottery was established in New Hampshire in 1964. Inspired by this success, other states quickly followed suit. Since then, no state has repealed its lotteries.

Despite their broad public appeal, lotteries have developed specific constituencies of their own: convenience store operators (who sell the tickets); suppliers of the scratch-off games, who often make large contributions to state political campaigns; teachers (in those states where lottery profits are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly come to rely on the extra revenue).

As a result, debate over lottery policy tends to focus on more specific features of the operation, such as the problem of compulsive gamblers or the alleged regressive impact on poorer citizens. But even as criticism shifts in focus, proponents of the lottery argue that a regulated lottery is a viable alternative to raising taxes and cutting services.