The casting of lots for purposes of making decisions and determining fates has a long record in human history. But lotteries that distribute prizes for material gain are relatively recent, starting in the West with a lottery held during the reign of Augustus Caesar to raise money for municipal repairs in Rome.
The modern state lottery grew out of that ancient idea, and it has proved enormously popular. It has generated substantial profits for states, which they have used for a variety of purposes, including reducing taxes. But critics argue that there is an inherent conflict in state governments’ desire to profit from gambling and their responsibility for protecting the public welfare.
One issue is that lottery revenues are not transparent, and consumers aren’t clear about the implicit tax rate they pay. Also, state governments quickly become dependent on painless lottery revenues, and are constantly pressured to expand into new games in order to maintain or increase those revenues.
In addition, lottery revenues are regressive in that they disproportionately burden low-income households. The very poor, those in the bottom quintile of income distribution, don’t have a lot of discretionary cash left over to spend on tickets. But they may feel that the lottery, however improbable, is their last, best, or only chance at getting out of poverty and up into the middle class. In that sense, lottery playing can be like drug addiction, with the gambler developing “quote-unquote” systems of buying and selling tickets based on irrational assumptions about the odds of winning.