The History of Public Lottery Fundraising

A lottery is a form of gambling in which lots are purchased and one is drawn at random to win a prize. Unlike other types of gambling, the lottery involves no skill and has the same odds for every player. A large portion of lottery proceeds are deducted for costs and profits, and a smaller portion is awarded to winners. The lottery is a popular method for raising funds for public services, including education, parks, and veterans’ care. It is also used to fund private businesses and events.

Lottery first emerged as a method of public financing in the fourteen-hundreds, with towns in the Low Countries relying on it to help build town fortifications and, later, charity for the poor. By the seventeen-hundreds, it had spread to America, where states adopted it as a way to solve budget crises without enraging an increasingly anti-tax electorate.

Despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling, people in America were willing to buy tickets for the chance of a substantial jackpot. Initially, the prizes were quite small—ten shillings was a hefty sum back then—but as the lottery grew in popularity, its jackpots ballooned to newsworthy levels. This attracted even more people, and the game quickly became a national pastime.

The lottery’s rise coincided with a crisis in state funding that was caused by a combination of soaring population growth, inflation, and war costs. Many states were providing a large social safety net, and they found that it was very difficult to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services, which were both extremely unpopular with voters.

To raise revenue, they turned to the lottery, which was a far less obtrusive method of taxation than raising state revenues through direct fees or indirect taxes. Lotteries were also easy to campaign for, as they were portrayed as an honest way to float the state’s entire budget rather than a specific line item.

When legalization advocates were no longer able to convince voters that the lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they began promoting it as a way to finance a specific line item—usually one of the most popular and least partisan government services, like education, elder care, or public parks. This made it easier for a voter to know what she was voting for or against, and helped sway voters who might otherwise be concerned about the effect of a new tax on poor or working-class families.

In the end, the lottery is a form of addictive gambling. Like a Snickers bar or a video game, it’s designed to keep you hooked by offering the illusion of a high payout with relatively low risk. Its reliance on addiction psychology is not something the lottery has ever tried to hide, and it’s certainly not unique to it. But it’s not something the government should be engaging in, either.

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