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Lotteries have a long history in the United States, dating back to the 1700s. The founding fathers ran them as a way to raise money for public projects that might otherwise be unaffordable, and many of the country’s most prominent institutions owe their existence to lottery proceeds, from the Boston’s Faneuil Hall to Columbia University and its illustrious alumni. But in the nineteen-sixties, as a growing population and spiraling inflation led to chronic budget crises for many state governments, lotteries became something much more: a desperate attempt to raise revenue without raising taxes or cutting public services.
Whether they’re run by state, county, or private entities, lotteries are now available in forty-four states and the District of Columbia. The six that don’t—Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada, where gambling is legal — have their own reasons for staying out of the game: Alabama’s religious concerns; Alaska’s surplus from oil drilling; Mississippi’s desire to keep its tax revenues unimpeded by a competing lottery; and Utah’s desire to avoid a “tax revolt.”
For the rest, it’s all about big jackpots, which draw media attention and drive ticket sales but usually come with a catch. As a result, the number of states offering multi-state games, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, has grown rapidly over the past few decades. But for all the attention they receive, lottery jackpots are a remarkably small source of state revenue.