The official lottery is the state’s way of raising money for programs like education. But it comes at a cost: People in the US spent over $100 billion on tickets in 2021, and state officials are trying to convince voters that this gambling isn’t that big of a deal because it’s good for the children.
There is a real need for states to raise revenue and lotteries can be a very low-cost way to do that. But there are two things that make that argument less than persuasive: First, there’s this belief that people will always gamble and so the state might as well offer a lottery because that’s inevitable gambling. Second, there’s the fact that states have every incentive to tell people all about how great they are doing with this revenue source and that hides how regressive it is.
The oldest known lottery was run by Roman Emperor Augustus, who distributed tickets among his guests during Saturnalian dinner parties. Prizes would usually be fancy items like dinnerware, and it was hailed as a painless form of taxation. Lotteries resurfaced in the early American colonies, where Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to fund his purchase of cannons for defense of Philadelphia and George Washington managed Col. Bernard Moore’s “Slave Lottery” in 1769, advertising land and slaves as prizes for the lucky winners. Lotteries continued to grow in popularity during the post-World War II period, attracting new players and expanding their revenue sources.