Lottery Politics

In early America, lotteries were a popular form of raising funds for public projects. Lottery profits helped finance town fortifications and charity. They were also a frequent source of bribes and political manipulation, as when George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings or when Denmark Vesey, a formerly enslaved man, won a ticket and used it to foment a slave revolt.

In the late-twentieth century, however, lottery enthusiasm seemed to ebb. As Cohen writes, this occurred in tandem with a nationwide tax revolt that resulted in property taxes plummeting and government revenue from sales and income taxes declining. Seeing the state lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” which could allow them to raise money without raising taxes, politicians began pushing them as ways to maintain government services without risking a backlash at the ballot box.

The main dynamic in lottery politics, as a result, is that voters want states to spend more, while politicians view the lotteries as an easy way to get their hands on the funds without being forced to raise taxes. This tension has produced a second set of issues related to the actual operation of the lotteries: complaints about misinformation in lottery advertising; about the relative difficulty of winning a prize (lotto jackpots can be paid out in several installments over twenty years, causing inflation and taxes to dramatically erode the current value); and criticisms of the industry’s alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups.

Lottery operators have responded to these concerns by narrowing the scope of their appeals. Rather than trying to convince voters that the lottery would float most of their budgets, they now claim it can cover a specific line item—invariably education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. They have also changed the way they present the odds of winning, to make them seem more attractive.