The Growing Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery has become a major source of income for many states and is expanding into new games such as keno and video poker. The growth has been fueled by an increase in advertising spending and a proliferation of retailers that sell tickets, including some that offer online services. But the growth has also been accompanied by declining sales, which have prompted some states to cut ticket prices or reduce jackpot amounts. In addition, the growing number of players has led to a widening gap between rich and poor that could eventually deprive the public of some essential services.

The word “lottery” derives from the Latin noun lotto, meaning a “fate or fortune decided by chance.” It has long been used for a variety of purposes, from making decisions and determining fates (Nero was a big fan) to distributing material wealth, with prizes ranging from gold coins to livestock and real estate. The early modern era saw the rise of commercial and state lotteries as an alternative to raising taxes to fund public works.

In the United States, lottery legislation is primarily a matter of state jurisdiction. But federal legislation does authorize some forms of multistate games, and the national organization NASPL has published guidelines for their operation. Some state governments are reluctant to allow lotteries, but others are eager to take advantage of the revenue potential.

A state-based lottery is typically financed by a percentage of ticket sales and by a portion of the proceeds from winning numbers. A few states, such as Georgia and Minnesota, raise money through a combination of state funds and private sources. But the vast majority of states use a pure lottery model.

State officials decide how to operate and regulate their lottery by adopting a series of laws, and the result is a system that changes over time. This evolution has made it difficult, if not impossible, for policymakers to establish a long-term course of action or a coherent gambling policy.

The popularity of the lottery is partly explained by exigency; America was short on revenue and long on needs for public works in the late nineteenth century, and lotteries provided an attractive alternative to taxation. But it is also driven by a national obsession with unimaginable wealth and by the sense that hard work and good luck should be enough to secure financial security.

In general, most lottery players come from middle-income neighborhoods. According to a survey, 17% of players say they play more than once a week, and the bulk of those are men in their mid-thirties with some college education.

The wealthy do play the lottery, too, of course; one Powerball winner took home a quarter of a billion dollars in the fall of 2007. But they buy fewer tickets and spend less of their annual income on them than do people earning significantly more than fifty thousand dollars a year. The difference can be dramatic: People who make more than a half-million dollars a year spend about one percent of their income on lottery tickets; those who earn less than thirty thousand do so at rates far below that figure.