Using Lottery Proceeds to Fund Public Works

The casting of lots has a long record in human history, and it has often been used to settle disputes. But using lottery proceeds to fund public works is a much more recent development. It began, Cohen argues, in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of how much money could be made through lotteries collided with a financial crisis in state governments. As the national population grew and inflation rose, it became increasingly difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were very unpopular with voters.

As a result, states turned to lotteries as a painless source of revenue. The result is that most state governments have become dependent on gambling revenues and face constant pressures to increase their profits. In this environment, officials make decisions piecemeal and incrementally rather than creating a coherent policy and taking the long view. As a result, lottery officials do not have a comprehensive understanding of the overall industry or its evolution, and their policies may be driven by short-term interests instead of the public welfare.