The Official Lottery

The first European lotteries to offer tickets with prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. But the American incarnation of the official lottery began in 1964, when New Hampshire became the first state to introduce it. In the decades that followed, state governments, often desperate for revenue sources other than taxes, rushed to follow suit.

By the late nineteen-thirties, state lotteries were thriving. In a nation that was defined politically by an aversion to taxation, they promised a way to finance everything from public works to civil rights, without triggering a populist backlash. But as the lottery’s popularity grew, critics raised concerns about a hidden cost. They argued that lottery revenue was responsive to economic fluctuation, as sales rose when incomes fell and unemployment increased; and that, as with any commercial product, the promotion of lottery products disproportionately occurred in poor and minority neighborhoods.

In response, legalization advocates shifted tactics. Instead of arguing that the lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they now claimed it could cover a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. This new strategy proved effective, as it allowed advocates to present a lottery as an alternative to cuts in other government services. It also made it easy to argue that a vote against the lottery was a vote against education.