Since 1964, when New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries, most of America’s states have followed suit. The result has been a proliferation of games that produce revenue booms that then level off and, in some cases, decline. To maintain revenue, lotteries have introduced new games and increased promotion. This dynamic is a classic example of how public policy is made piecemeal, with little or no overall perspective, and how authority and pressures are fragmented. State lottery officials face a host of specific constituencies, including convenience store owners (who sell tickets), suppliers of products such as scratch-off tickets and keno games, teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education), and state legislators.
As the popularity of lotteries grew in the late twentieth century, they became something of a national fixation, a phenomenon Cohen describes as “budgetary miracles.” Voters wanted states to spend more but did not want their taxes raised, and legislators looked to lotteries as a way of raising funds from the public without taxing them. “Lotteries were the great budgetary illusion of the time,” he writes, “the chance for states to make enormous sums appear, seemingly out of thin air.”
People buy lotteries because they think they have a good shot at winning. But it’s important to remember that a lottery is, by definition, a game of chance, and any one set of numbers has exactly the same odds of winning as any other. This fact has not deterred lotteries from using words such as “hot” and “cold” to describe a particular set of numbers.
Lottery games are also popular because of the allure of an unimaginable windfall, a dream that is especially strong for those who have suffered from economic hardship or a lack of social support. The lottery’s rise in popularity in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties coincided with a period of declining economic security for many Americans: incomes stagnated, pensions and health care costs declined, job stability waned, and for most working-class families the long-standing American promise that hard work and education would ensure them a better life than their parents’ fell apart.
As a result, people have come to believe that the lottery is their last, best or only hope of climbing out of their financial troubles. The ugly underbelly of this belief is that if you really believe you have a small sliver of hope that you will win, you’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen. This includes going to the grocery store at a certain time of day, picking a lucky number at the gas station, and following all sorts of quote-unquote systems that are totally unfounded in statistical reasoning. And this is precisely what state lotteries are banking on. Until this changes, the lotteries will continue to prosper.