Lottery As a Budget Miracle

Lottery, in which players pay a nominal sum and select numbers (or have machines spit them out) for a chance to win big prizes, is an ancient pastime. Its biblical roots extend to the Old Testament—where the Lord instructs Moses to distribute land by lot—and the Romans used it for everything from granting property to slaves and other items during Saturnalian feasts.

In the modern era, lottery has become, as Cohen puts it, “a budgetary miracle, an opportunity for state governments to appear to make revenue out of thin air.” In the nineteen-sixties and beyond, when America’s prosperity ran into rising inflation, high unemployment, and the cost of fighting the Vietnam War, states struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries were a solution.

But lottery sales didn’t just rise, they exploded, skewed to low-income and minority neighborhoods, and quickly sucked in the money of those who could least afford it. The rich did play, of course—one of the largest jackpots ever was a quarter of a billion dollars—but they spent on average about one per cent of their income on tickets; the poor, thirteen per cent.

To keep the jackpots growing, lottery marketers began to market the games by emphasizing that winning a prize would help a specific line item in the state budget, often education but sometimes elder care, parks, or aid for veterans. By focusing on the specifics, they hoped to convince voters that a vote for lottery funds was really a vote for a service they liked.