Legalizing the Lottery


As much as people like to fantasize about the chance to win a lottery jackpot, most will never come close. In fact, the number of Americans who have ever won a major prize is now smaller than the population of Texas. This decline coincided with a decline in financial security for most working people, as inequality widened, job security eroded, and pensions and health-care costs rose. For most, the old national promise that hard work and education would eventually render them wealthier than their parents ceased to be true.

The casting of lots to decide fates and to allocate resources has a long history, with many examples in the Bible. But lotteries distributing prizes for material gain are more recent, although they can be traced back to Roman times for municipal repairs and to 1466 in Bruges, Belgium, where the first state lottery distributed money for food.

Today, 44 states have state-sponsored lotteries. The six that don’t are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada. Some of the states are motivated by religious concerns, while others are simply unable to attract enough players. For those who play, the best strategy is to buy a large number of tickets, because you’ll have a better chance of winning. The mathematician Stefan Mandel, for example, made millions by buying thousands of tickets and pooling them with investors.

Legalization advocates changed tactics, and began to argue that the proceeds from the lottery would cover a single line item, invariably a popular government service, usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This narrower approach made it easier to sell lottery legalization, and it appears to be more effective at winning public approval than arguing that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget.