How the Lottery Has Been Used to Address a Wide Range of Issues


Lottery is a game in which people pay for tickets, guess a bunch of numbers (or have machines randomly spit them out), and hope to win prizes by matching those numbers. The prize money can be anything from a free home to a college education. But the game is also a metaphor for a range of societal issues, from housing shortages to kindergarten placements. As such, it has been used to address a wide variety of policy concerns—and it’s not only popular but politically viable.

The practice of distributing property or other goods by lot is ancient—it’s mentioned in the Bible, for example, and was a common way of allocating land during the Roman Empire. Lotteries also made their way into European culture, becoming widespread after the introduction of state-run games in the 1500s. These tended to raise money for public purposes and were widely considered a painless form of taxation.

Despite their inauspicious origins, lottery games are now ubiquitous—and they can be found almost everywhere. In America, for instance, there are dozens of state-sponsored lotteries that sell tickets for everything from new cars to college scholarships. In addition, a booming private industry produces lottery software that makes the process more transparent and accountable. Across the globe, there are countless other lotteries that sell scratch-off tickets for everything from a free pizza to an island vacation.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were introduced in Europe during the 1500s, and English speakers adopted the term “lottery” from Middle Dutch lotterie (which itself is probably a calque on the French word loterie, meaning “lot,” or fate). The first American lottery was established in 1964, in New Hampshire, a state known for its tax-averse attitudes. As the nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt intensified, states began promoting lotteries as a painless alternative to rising property taxes.

Advocates of legalized lotteries once claimed that they could float entire state budgets and eliminate a host of line items. But when those claims proved unfounded, proponents ginned up other strategies. They started to promote lotteries as an affordable substitute for a small percentage of the state’s revenue—which would still leave plenty of room for tax cuts, public spending, and other measures that would boost economic growth. They also promoted them as a means of diversifying state economies, and they concentrated their marketing efforts in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. As a result, lottery revenue has soared to record highs in many of the same communities where poverty rates and unemployment have risen.