The casting of lots to determine the distribution of property and other goods has a long history, with a number of examples in the Old Testament (Moses is instructed to take a census of Israel and divide up land by lot) and Roman emperors using it to give away slaves. However, the modern practice of state-sponsored lottery games is much more recent, beginning in 1964 with New Hampshire’s adoption and spread to all but ten states by 1975.
Lottery promoters rely on two messages primarily to sell tickets. One is the reassurance that the lottery is a harmless activity and the experience of scratching off the ticket is fun. The other is the message that lottery players can feel good about themselves for supporting a cause they believe in, especially if they win. But that message obscures how regressive lotteries are.
The regressivity of the lottery is exacerbated by the way lotteries are regulated. Most states establish a lottery through a piecemeal process, with little or no overall overview, and a small group of people has substantial influence over the decisions that go into it.
In many cases, this group is made up of convenience store operators, lottery suppliers (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns), teachers (since their states earmark lottery revenues for education), and state legislators (since they soon become accustomed to the revenue). This arrangement is not unique; in fact, it is characteristic of all government activities where public policies are made incrementally, without a clear overall view.