The Evolution of the Official Lottery

In states facing budget crises in the late twentieth century, lotteries emerged as a solution to their dilemma. Politicians, faced with a public that reacted violently to even a mention of raising taxes, could point to the lottery as proof that they could maintain existing services without doing so. As Cohen writes, state officials viewed lotteries as “budgetary miracles, the chance for governments to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.”

The early era of government-run lotteries in the United States was brought to an end by scandals and widespread concern about mismanagement. The infamous Louisiana State Lottery Company, operated by a notorious criminal syndicate in New York City, bucked the trend by operating illegally as far as possible outside the confines of the state’s boundaries, sending out ads and selling tickets nationwide. This rogue operation was finally brought to an end by a federal law prohibiting the interstate sale of tickets, crushing the Louisiana game and ending state lotteries in America for a time.

Today, lotteries operate under a variety of structures. Some are run by individual states, while others, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, are governed by consortiums of state lotteries. There are also instant games, where participants can win a prize with the click of a button, and draw games, such as Lotto 6/49.

Regardless of structure, critics have raised concerns about the morality of funding state services through gambling and have pointed out that state lotteries tend to be regressive because low income communities buy more tickets than higher-income ones. In addition, studies show that many people have quote-unquote systems – based on irrational beliefs about lucky numbers and lucky stores and times of day to buy tickets – that help them increase their chances of winning.