The Lottery and America’s Fiscal Crisis


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay to have their numbers drawn at random. The winner takes home a prize, often money. Lotteries are popular in many countries, including the United States. The history of the lottery dates back to ancient times, when casting lots was used for everything from dividing land among Israelites to selecting the winner of a game in which players tossed bones. In the modern era, the lottery first gained popularity in the nineteen-sixties. At that time, America was experiencing a fiscal crisis, caused by booming population growth, inflation, and the Vietnam War. Many state governments found that they had swollen to the point where they could no longer balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Politicians saw the lottery as a way to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, and thereby avoid any painful tax increases that might anger voters.

But critics of the lottery were skeptical, both about the ethics of using public funds for gambling and about how much money states really stood to gain from the venture. Among the most vocal opponents were devout Protestants, who regarded state-sponsored gambling as morally unconscionable. But other groups, from both sides of the political spectrum and all walks of life, opposed it as well.

Nevertheless, the lottery quickly became a fixture of American life. The first state-run lotteries were launched in the northeastern United States, and they soon spread across the nation. They became especially appealing to states with large social safety nets that were struggling to keep up with their costs but didn’t want to raise taxes or cut programs. The idea was that by offering the public a chance to win huge sums of money, the lottery would create a new revenue source that allowed state governments to maintain their existing services without hurting the most vulnerable members of society.

Cohen argues that the success of the lottery was largely a result of the broader fiscal crisis of the late-twentieth century. States were unable to sustain the welfare state that they had built after World War II, and they turned to the lottery in order to finance it. The results were so successful that the lottery now accounts for more than half of all state income in the United States.

The lottery has become a powerful symbol of the ways in which government is increasingly being forced to choose between competing goals. In an anti-tax era, state governments have come to rely on this seemingly painless source of revenue and are under increasing pressure to increase it. But lottery profits are not a sustainable financial solution, and the growing dependence of state governments on this type of gambling should be of concern to all citizens. Unless the state governments are prepared to face up to that reality, they may find themselves unable to sustain their current programs or even implement new ones. This will have serious consequences for the country’s future.