The Growing Popularity of Lotteries

The casting of lots for material gain has a long record in human history, as evidenced by the existence of keno slips from the Chinese Han Dynasty (205–187 BC) and a reference to lotteries in the Book of Songs (2nd millennium BC). However, it was only with the advent of the printing press that mass public lotteries became possible.

The first state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for a drawing at some point in the future. But innovations in the 1970s, primarily scratch-off tickets, have transformed lottery games and increased revenues. Lottery revenue has been volatile, growing rapidly early on then leveling off or even declining. To maintain or increase revenues, lotteries introduce new games regularly.

Despite this volatility, lotteries remain popular. The principal message that the industry aims to convey is that the money raised by lotteries goes to support some specific public good, such as education. This argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when voters fear state government might have to cut back on public programs. But it’s not clear that the overall financial health of a state is actually improved by the introduction of a lottery.

The fact that so many people play lotteries, and spend significant proportions of their income on these activities, is a cause for concern. In addition, the majority of lottery players and winnings come from middle-income neighborhoods; far fewer, proportionally, are from low-income areas. This imbalance is largely the result of a marketing strategy that relies on super-sized jackpots, which generate news attention and increase sales.