The Growing Power of the Lottery

The casting of lots for determining fates and distributing wealth has long been a part of human culture, with examples going back as far as the Bible. But state-sponsored lotteries promoting gambling for material gain are a much more recent development. The earliest such lotteries were recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century for the purposes of raising money to build town fortifications and help the poor. Since New Hampshire introduced the first state lottery in 1964, lotteries have been a feature of American life, with most states offering multiple games and achieving wide public support. Despite this broad appeal, critics assert that the state lottery is fundamentally at odds with the state’s obligation to protect its citizens. They argue that the lottery encourages addictive gambling behaviors, poses a significant regressive tax on lower-income groups, and leads to other forms of criminal activity.

Regardless of the specifics of each state’s particular lottery, the general pattern of its operation has been similar: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a private firm or public corporation to run the lotto in exchange for a fee for the privilege; begins operations with a small number of relatively simple games and, as revenues grow, expands into more complicated and competitive offerings. Lottery advertising often features elaborate graphics and catchy slogans that aim to attract and keep the attention of prospective customers.

As the state lottery business grows, it develops a broad and specific constituency of convenience store owners (who are often the primary sellers of tickets); suppliers to the industry (whose employees donate heavily to state political campaigns); teachers in states that earmark lottery revenues for education; state legislators, who become accustomed to receiving frequent contributions from the gaming industry; and others. The result is that the lottery becomes a massive business with the ability to influence and even control public policy.

People who play the lottery can pick their own numbers or purchase Quick Picks, which the oddsmakers choose for them. However, Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends not picking numbers based on birthdays or other personal identifiers because there is a greater chance of more than one person having those same numbers and thus splitting the prize. He says instead to go with sequential numbers, like 1-2-3-4-5-6.

Many winners of the lottery spend all or a substantial portion of their winnings and find themselves in financial trouble. To avoid this, a certified financial planner tells Business Insider that lottery winners should assemble a “financial triad” to assist with pragmatic financial planning. Other advice is to stay away from extravagant purchases or risky investments and focus on saving for the future.

While a number of successful lottery winners have gone on to live wealthy lifestyles, others have spent their millions on lavish homes, cars, and vacations or blew it all on gambling and other ventures. Some have even gotten caught up in legal battles over their winnings. Whatever the case may be, there is no denying that the lottery offers the hope of instant riches to millions of people, and that can be addictive.