The Growing Criticism of the Lottery


The casting of lots has a long history (Nero liked it; it’s in the Bible), but using it to acquire material goods is only fairly recent, with the first public lotteries raising money for repairs appearing in 15th-century town records from the Low Countries. These early lotteries were often run by religious orders and were aimed at benefiting the poor, but they also promoted gambling as a fun pastime with high rewards and low risks.

As state governments began implementing lotteries in the nineteenth century, the idea gained popularity, as it appeared to provide an easy way for states to expand their services without raising taxes or cutting vital social safety nets. However, as Cohen explains, by the 1960s, the lottery was in trouble. With population growth, inflation, and the cost of war, it was becoming difficult for states to balance their budgets, and lottery revenues were falling.

As a result, lotteries started to change in ways that raise important questions. First, the emphasis shifted from promoting the lottery as an enjoyable hobby with great prizes to a more promotional message aimed at getting people to spend large sums on tickets. As a business strategy, this is effective; but it has implications for problem gamblers and the regressive impact on lower-income groups. It also puts lotteries at cross-purposes with the state’s broader mission to promote healthy economic development. For these reasons, there’s a growing chorus of criticism of the lottery that shifts from its initial desirability to more specific features of its operations.