The lottery is an enormously popular form of gambling. Its roots go back thousands of years, but in the modern era, it gained ground in the nineteen sixties, when widespread awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. States, especially those that provided a generous social safety net, found themselves having trouble balancing their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Both options were highly unpopular with voters.

State lotteries thus emerged as a way to raise funds while providing citizens with an opportunity to win a prize whose value would be determined by chance, but not subject to the whims of politicians or the vicissitudes of economic conditions. It’s an argument that has worked well enough to allow lotteries to retain broad support even in the most stable of economic times, according to Clotfelter and Cook.

While the casting of lots to determine fates and fortunes has a long history (including in the Bible), the modern state lottery is relatively recent, dating back only about 500 years. The first public lottery to distribute prize money was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium, with the declared purpose of aiding the poor.

Today, 44 states run lotteries; the six that don’t (including Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada) either have no state governments or have laws against it. In general, state lottery advocates argue that the money raised by the games benefits a particular “public good,” such as education. This argument plays particularly well during periods of economic stress, when voters may fear that government is running out of money and are receptive to the idea that they can help themselves by buying a ticket.