A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated to people by a process that relies wholly on chance. The prizes may be money or goods, services, or even political office. The first lotteries appeared in the 15th century, but the modern state lottery was launched in New Hampshire in 1964 and has grown rapidly ever since. The underlying dynamic of the lottery is that voters want their states to spend more, and politicians look at lotteries as an easy way to get more tax dollars without making hard choices about where to cut programs.
Lotteries are popular in Europe, where they have been used for centuries as mechanisms to raise money for a wide range of purposes. Town records from the Low Countries in the 14th and 15th centuries refer to a number of local lotteries that raised funds for town fortifications, or for helping poor people. In the United States, public lotteries were popular in the early years of the American Revolution, and helped build many of the nation’s most prestigious colleges: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Brown. Privately organized lotteries also were common in the colonial period and later, as a means of selling products or land for more than would be obtained from a regular sale.
The popularity of the state lottery grew during the post-World War II period, when many states were expanding their social safety nets and needed new revenue sources to pay for them. Lotteries were promoted as a way to raise money for those important public services without raising taxes, and that was a convincing argument in the face of a bruising national debate about inflation and government spending.
It has been shown that state lotteries are a very efficient way to raise money, and they have won widespread public support. They remain popular in times of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases or cuts in public services looms large. But studies have also demonstrated that the actual fiscal condition of a state does not appear to have much bearing on whether or when it adopts a lottery.
One of the reasons that state lotteries retain broad popular support is the fact that the money from the games – beyond what winners receive – is returned to the participating states. Most states use some of that money for a variety of purposes, including supporting gambling addiction and recovery centers, or to enhance state infrastructure, like roadwork, bridgework, and police force. Some have gotten creative with this funding, and have used it to fund groups that assist the elderly.
The other reason for the success of the state lottery is that it develops extensive specific constituencies: convenience store operators, who supply the tickets; suppliers of equipment and software to run the games; teachers (in those states where a percentage of proceeds is earmarked for education); and so on. As a result, it is very difficult to abolish a state lottery once it is established.