The Popularity of Lottery Games

The casting of lots for purposes of determining fate or fortune has a long history. However, the modern lottery, with tickets sold for cash prizes and public usages to benefit, is a relatively recent invention.

During the immediate post-World War II period, state governments found that lotteries provided a relatively easy way to raise money for many social programs without having to increase taxes on working and middle classes. Lotteries have been especially popular when state budgets are stressed. And in fact, they tend to win broad public approval even when a state’s fiscal health is good.

This support can be traced to two factors: the public’s insatiable appetite for gambling and the underlying perception that anyone can get rich if they just try hard enough. The latter argument was bolstered by a new materialism that asserts that wealth can be obtained with minimal effort or luck, and by anti-tax movements that led to lawmakers searching for “painless” revenue sources.

But the popularity of lotteries is complicated by several other factors, including a general lack of understanding about how the games work and some negative consequences associated with them. For example, many people buy lottery tickets with numbers that are significant to them such as their children’s birthdays. But Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman says this increases the chance of sharing the prize with someone else who also picked the same number. In his view, it’s better to buy Quick Picks or play a game such as Keno in which the ticket machine selects a random set of numbers for you.