The Growing Popularity of the Lottery

A lottery is an ancient pastime, used as early as the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and in the Bible for everything from choosing the king of Israel to divvying up Jesus’ garments. They’re also a huge business: state lotteries generate more revenue than all but the most oil-rich states. In the United States, they’ve become so popular that they’re an almost universal form of state gambling.

In the nineteen-seventies and accelerating in the nineteen-eighties, a growing awareness of all the money that can be made in the lottery coincided with a crisis in state funding. A combination of a growing population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War was making it harder and harder for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both options that are extremely unpopular with voters.

One solution has been to sell more tickets, and to raise the odds of winning. It’s a logical strategy, but it comes with an ugly underbelly. The more the odds are raised, the more people play—even if they know they’re going to lose. As a result, the overwhelming majority of lottery players come from middle- and lower-income neighborhoods, while far fewer play in high-income areas. This imbalance has been exacerbated by the proliferation of “pick-three and pick-four” games, which make it possible to win small amounts of money with relatively low odds. In many cases, these games have been more popular than traditional lotteries.