The Official Lottery

In America, the official lottery has a complicated history. It began in earnest in the 1740s, when government-sponsored gambling games grew increasingly popular in Europe and then came to the colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Lotteries fueled everything from church construction to the creation of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; John Hancock ran one to help build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and the Continental Congress tried to run a lottery to raise money for the Revolutionary War.

But despite all the publicity, state lotteries were never very profitable. They accounted for only a small portion of a state’s budget, and were often mismanaged. Eventually, the public grew dissatisfied with the game and many states abandoned it altogether. Those that continued to operate found new ways to market the lottery. They pushed back on some of the myths, such as the idea that lottery proceeds would float most of a state’s budget, and narrowed the message to one line item—invariably a popular and nonpartisan service like education or elder care.

They also shifted the message to encourage players to think of the lottery as a way to save for retirement, or as a kind of civic duty. As Matheson explains, that shift was crucial. It helped to make lottery promotion less sexy, and more believable. It also made it easier to argue that lotteries did, in fact, benefit state finances. But even that claim was contested by anti-gambling groups, and today, the percentage of state revenue that comes from lotteries is significantly lower than it was in the 1960s.