The Lottery and Instant Games

The casting of lots to make decisions has a long history, ranging from the biblical commandment for Moses to divide the land to Roman emperors giving away property and slaves by drawing names. It was only in the late twentieth century that state governments began to adopt this form of gambling as a way to raise funds, and when they did, it was with a lot of controversy. The defenders of the lottery argued that because people would gamble anyway, it might as well be government-run and the profits could help pay for public goods like education and social services.

Lottery revenues typically spike shortly after a state adopts the game, but they then level off and may decline. To keep revenues up, games must be introduced regularly. This introduces the risk that some people will become bored with the game, and if too many of them stop playing, the revenue base can plummet.

To ward off boredom, state lotteries have experimented with a variety of innovations since the first ticket sales in 1964. For a time, they were little more than traditional raffles in which the public purchased tickets for a drawing to be held at a future date. But by the mid-1970s, they were using new technology to create what Cohen terms “instant games.”

Rather than a waiting period, these games involve the instant issuance of tickets. Players choose a combination of numbers and hope to match the winning combinations drawn by the computer. The odds of winning vary with the number of available numbers and the number of times each combination has been drawn. However, the chances of a player’s chosen numbers appearing are still very small: a single pair of numbers has the same chance of being drawn as any other two-number combination.

As a result, the instant games have grown increasingly popular. They can be played at convenience stores, where they are heavily promoted, and also online. But because the tickets are not sold at face value, they cost a bit more than traditional lottery tickets.

A major problem is that these state-run games often promote gambling to groups that are disproportionately poor or black. The promotion is done largely through advertising, which tends to be heavily concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods. These ads can exacerbate problems by luring young people into gambling, encouraging them to believe that it is an easy way to get rich, and fueling the myth that lottery play is harmless.

In an era defined by antitax sentiment, state governments have come to depend on lottery proceeds. But they must balance those benefits with the moral implications of running an activity that entices poor people to spend money they might otherwise save for their own needs. And even if that does not lead to serious problems, it raises the question of whether lotteries are a sound policy in an age where many families need the income they produce and when it is hard for many Americans to get ahead.