The Secrets of the Official Lottery

For a long time, it seemed like lottery games were a surefire way for states to raise money. But they are hardly foolproof, as this article shows. Among other things, their existence has been shaped by a peculiar clash of values.

In the nineteen-sixties, when America was still recovering from a recession and fighting inflation, balancing state budgets became a major challenge. Even in a nation that had become famously tax averse, it was clear that the old ways of funding public goods were not working anymore.

To plug the gap, state governments began to legalize lotteries. Lotteries are essentially gambling, but they don’t have the same stigma attached to them as regular betting. And so they could be sold to voters as a quick way to rake in dough.

But while many people simply love to gamble, there’s more to the lottery than that. It also serves a deeper purpose, helping to keep numbers-game players out of the criminal justice system and thus freeing up resources that could be spent on other things, such as education, housing, and elder care.

Moreover, because states run their own lotteries, they can band together to organize games with larger geographical footprints and jackpots. This is how multi-state games such as Mega Millions and Powerball came to be. They are, in effect, de facto national lotteries. This gives the illusion that there is a single national game, which makes it easier to promote and sell.