The History of the Lottery
In a storefront window at my local convenience store, there is a rack of dozens of different scratch-off lottery tickets. Their dominant themes are primary colors, dollar signs, gleaming coins, shooting stars and stacks of silver dollars. They resemble the decor for a kindergarten classroom, and they ooze with flashy hecticness. But their underlying message is one that most people can relate to: You can be rich, too. Just buy a ticket.
In the seventeenth century, it was fairly common for Dutch cities to hold lotteries, which were a sort of painless form of taxation. They raised money for a wide variety of public usages, including town fortifications and charity for the poor. These lottery tickets, which cost ten shillings each, also functioned as a get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, the word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which means fate.
The modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the potential money to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. With a swelling population and spiraling inflation, state governments found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Both options were extremely unpopular with voters, especially in states that had long prided themselves on their social safety nets. To avoid being punished at the polls, some politicians turned to lotteries to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, seemingly out of thin air.
Those who campaigned for the state lottery insisted that it would be a fiscal miracle, a way for governments to make money without ever having to raise taxes. As time went on, however, the financial reality of the lottery began to erode. The lottery remained popular, but it no longer was a magic bullet for state coffers.
As lottery jackpots began to dwindle, the advocates of legalization began ginning up new strategies to sell the idea. Instead of claiming that the lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they argued that it could cover a particular line item, usually some government service that was both widely popular and nonpartisan—often education, but sometimes elder care or aid to veterans. This narrow approach made it easy for politicians to convince voters that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling but for a worthy public service.
When a large jackpot is offered, it drives ticket sales, and it gives the game a windfall of free publicity on news sites and on television. But as jackpots grow smaller, it becomes harder to attract enough ticket holders to share in the prize. As a result, the chances of winning are dramatically lower. Moreover, the top prize may not be paid out in its entirety, meaning that many people will have to settle for much less than they’re expecting. This is a big reason why many people don’t even bother to play anymore. If they want to have a decent chance of winning, they need to learn how to spot the right numbers.