Lottery has always been a popular way for governments to raise money for public projects. During colonial America, for instance, more than 200 lotteries were sanctioned to help finance roads, canals, churches, colleges, and militias. The lottery has also helped to finance private ventures such as the formation of Princeton and Columbia Universities, and it provided an important source of funding during the French and Indian War.
But despite the fact that it is an extremely unlikely event to win, lotteries still appeal to a very real and deeply ingrained desire among many people to improve their lives through the possibility of winning large sums of money. In 2021, Americans spent over $80 billion on lotteries – enough to cover the entire federal deficit. Considering that most of the money won in a lottery can be taxed and spent within a few years, it seems odd that we spend so much on such an unproven gamble.
But lottery commissioners have figured out that there are two main messages that they can send. One is that the lottery is fun, a wacky game that lets you scratch off a ticket for a chance to be rich. This message obscures the regressivity of lottery spending and encourages people to spend a significant share of their incomes on tickets. The other main message is that lotteries are good for states because they raise money. This argument is less persuasive, but it makes the case that state revenue from lottery is important and should not be discounted.