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The Lottery Industry


Lottery is a popular form of gambling that generates billions of dollars in sales each year. It is an industry that, like any other business, tries to maximize profits through advertising, promotions, and the selling of tickets. Lottery is also a way for states to raise revenue without having to raise taxes on middle-class and working-class people.

The practice of determining fates and distributing property by lot has a long history that goes back to ancient times. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of Israel and divide land among the people by lot. Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves. Lotteries were brought to the United States by British colonists, and initially the reaction was largely negative, with ten states banning them between 1844 and 1859.

By the 1980s, however, lottery revenues were increasing dramatically. It’s not clear why, but one theory is that it was a response to widening economic inequality and the new materialism that asserted anyone could get rich through hard work or good luck. In addition, anti-tax movements were gaining strength and pushing lawmakers to seek alternative revenue sources.

State lottery officials promote their games by touting the specific benefits of the money they raise for each state. But I have never seen these benefits put in the context of overall state budgets, or discussed in terms of the trade-offs to people who lose money. What’s more, state lottery officials are notorious for making policy decisions piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. The result is a lottery industry that evolves in ways that are often beyond the control of those who set it up.