The Official Lottery

The story of the official lottery begins in the nineteen-sixties, when the growing awareness of how much money could be made gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. The rapid expansion of America’s social safety net in the immediate postwar period was coming to an end, and balancing budgets had become a major challenge for many states. To avoid cutting services or hiking taxes, politicians turned to the lottery.

Some critics questioned both the ethics of funding public services through gambling and how much money the states really stood to gain. Among the most vociferous opponents were devout Protestants, who viewed government-sanctioned lotteries as morally unconscionable. Yet, despite such objections, governments ran a series of lotteries and raked in billions.

Defending the new lotteries, advocates often argued that people would be gambling anyway, so the state might as well get its share of the profits. This argument, though flawed and often racist, gave moral cover to many white voters who otherwise approved of lotteries.

Today, state lotteries operate independently and offer a variety of games, including three-digit numbers games, keno, instant tickets and video lottery terminals. But all operate under the same general principle: a single drawing produces winners, who are publicly announced and required to pay tax on their winnings. The winnings may seem large, but, when compared to overall state revenue and income, they are only a drop in the bucket.