The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a system of government-sanctioned gambling that raises money for public services through prize draws. The first lotteries in modern times were launched in the northeastern states and the Rust Belt during the late twenties, when state budgets had begun to dwindle as voters turned against taxes on property, income, and sales. Politicians saw lotteries as a way to maintain existing services without increasing taxes and risking being punished at the polls.

Supporters argued that people are bound to gamble, and the state might as well capture this inextricable human impulse for the good of the public. Critics of lotteries questioned both the morality of funding public services through gambling and the amount of money that state governments actually stood to gain, and they came from all political and religious stripes. Many devout Protestants, in particular, viewed government-sanctioned gambling as morally wrong, and they boycotted the lottery in droves.

As lotteries grew in popularity, they began to be adopted by more and more states. Then in the early nineteen-eighties, as voters’ antipathy to taxes rose to new heights, the lottery became an ideal solution for politicians looking for ways to maintain existing services without raising taxes. In states where there were no sales or income taxes, lottery revenue seemed like a budgetary miracle, allowing politicians to spend money on services without worrying about upsetting their anti-tax constituents.