The big question about lotteries is not whether people should gamble, but rather whether states should be in the business of promoting a vice that exposes people to addiction. It’s a fair question, and one that legislators in most of the country’s state have answered by prohibiting them or by restricting their sales. But the answer to that question isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem, given the relatively minor share of budget revenue that lotteries generate.
State governments embraced the idea of lottery-run games in part out of exigency: They needed money for infrastructure and social services, and they were faced with a population boom that was driving up inflation, squeezing state revenues. “The immediate postwar period was a time when states were able to expand their array of services without especially onerous taxes on working class and middle class voters,” Cohen writes, but by the 1960s that arrangement came to an end, thanks in part to growing awareness of the gambling business’s hefty profits and an era of fiscal crisis that forced many state governments to choose between raising taxes or cutting their programs.
Lotteries have been used to fund everything from civil defense to churches, and the founding fathers were huge fans: Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to help Boston build Faneuil Hall, John Hancock helped organize one to pay for a road across Virginia’s mountain pass, and George Washington himself attempted to use a lottery to raise money to fight the Revolutionary War. Today, state laws dictate how the games are run and who is eligible to participate, as well as the rules that govern things like time limits for claiming prizes.