The official lottery is an institution that seems to exist solely to make money. It is a money machine that churns out millions of dollars a week, drawing on the psychology of addiction and the social anxiety that many people feel about gambling. State officials are not above availing themselves of that same psychology in order to keep people playing, even when the odds of winning are slim. It’s not unlike how cigarette companies and video-game manufacturers do business, but it isn’t normally done under the auspices of government.
It wasn’t always so. In the seventeenth century, state-sponsored lotteries were quite common in Europe, where they raised funds for a wide range of public usages. The word itself, from Dutch lot, is a compound of the noun “lot” (fate) and the verb “to draw.”
In colonial America, lotteries played a critical role in both private and public endeavors. Cohen writes that in a country that had no sales tax or income tax and no appetite for instituting either one, the lottery seemed to offer politicians a budgetary miracle – a way to maintain essential services without increasing taxes. It also helped to sustain a burgeoning population and finance private enterprise, including some of the nation’s first and most prestigious colleges, such as Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton.
But the nation’s initial era of lotteries was not without controversy. The most vociferous critics of the scheme were devout Protestants, who viewed government-sponsored lotteries as morally unconscionable. Other opponents questioned the amount of money that states stood to gain, and the ethics of funding public services through gambling. Despite these concerns, in the late-twentieth century, voters largely dismissed them and approved the expansion of state-run lotteries.
State lotteries bring in, on average, about one percent of a state’s revenue. That may seem like a trivial sum, but it has two major problems. First, it makes it harder for politicians to raise much-needed taxes, because the public wrongly believes that schools and other vital services are lavishly funded by gambling revenues. And second, because the money comes primarily from those who can least afford it, state lotteries are inherently regressive, taking a bigger toll on poor residents than on rich ones.
Ticket: A document issued by a lottery that shows the player’s eligibility to participate in a specific drawing. Winner: The person who wins a prize. Withholding: Amounts subtracted from a lottery winner’s prize for the purposes of state, federal, and, in some cases, local taxes. Back Pair: A wager option that enables a player to select the last two numbers in a set of Pick 3 or Pick 4 combinations.
Licensed Property: Trademarked products, images, and brands used by the lottery to promote its games.