The Lottery – A Budgetary Miracle


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes, such as land or money, are allocated by a process that relies wholly on chance. Among other things, this means that anyone can be a winner at any time. That fact, and the way the arrangements are run, makes them a form of gambling. As such, they are subject to a wide range of ethical objections, including the likelihood that people who gamble will become addicted; the regressive impact on lower-income groups; and the tendency for lotteries to attract the same demographics as other forms of gambling.

Nevertheless, lotteries remain popular in the United States and around the world. They contribute billions of dollars annually, and people play them for a variety of reasons. Some simply enjoy the excitement of the game, and others believe that winning a prize will improve their life.

In the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, as Cohen explains, state governments were in need of extra revenue. But they weren’t able to raise taxes without facing the angry ire of voters, especially those who could barely afford the rates they already paid. Lotteries seemed like a budgetary miracle, allowing politicians to float state services without jacking up taxes on the poorest citizens.

Lottery supporters argued that the revenue from lotteries would cover one line item in each state’s budget, usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This approach made the case for legalization much easier, as it meant that a vote for the lottery was not a vote against gambling; it was a vote to support education or public parks or veterans’ affairs.