In the past, lotteries tended to be used as a way to raise money for particular projects. For example, the Continental Congress held a lottery to try to raise funds for the American Revolution and public lotteries were also used to fund many American colleges including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, King’s College, Union and William and Mary. Privately organized lotteries were popular, too, and were often a means of selling products or properties for more than they could be sold for in a regular sale.
The story of lotteries and their place in society can be told through two broad categories: the ones that dish out cash prizes to paying participants, and those that determine who gets into a school or who gets a unit in a subsidized housing complex or who gets the first pick in a draft. These lottery-like processes can be very important, as they provide a way to distribute something that is scarce but in high demand by everyone. This is true even for something as basic as kindergarten admissions or the chance to get a vaccine against a deadly virus.
As early as the Roman Empire, emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves to their guests at Saturnalia feasts. Later, in the Americas, lotteries were used to decide who would be rewarded with land grants and for other public works. During the American Revolution, a lottery was attempted to be used as a means of raising funds for the rebellion and public lotteries continued to be used in various forms throughout the country after the war.
Cohen explains that when state governments began to approve lotteries, their proponents argued that they would fill the state coffers without increasing state taxes and would keep money in the pockets of average citizens. But that premise proved false. Lottery proceeds are responsive to economic fluctuations; they rise as incomes fall, unemployment grows and poverty rates increase. And, as with all commercial products, lottery sales are influenced by advertising-and the ads are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black or Latino.
The most popular lottery games are scratch-offs, which account for sixty to 65 percent of lottery sales and tend to be regressive: they benefit the wealthier players who play them more often. The other category is lotto games, such as Powerball and Mega Millions. These are less regressive, but they still benefit upper-middle class players more than poorer ones.
Lottery is a deeply embedded part of our culture, but it’s a complicated affair. On the one hand, it provides millions of people with an opportunity to escape from their ordinary lives. On the other, it creates expectations of great riches that may never materialize and erodes the long-held national promise that hard work and education will make families financially secure. The resulting disutility can be immense, especially for children who grow up and find that the dreams they had as children were not fulfilled.