GOVERNMENT-SPONSORED lotteries have a long tradition dating back to colonial America, when they were a common way of financing public projects.
But by the end of the 19th century, legal lotteries had disappeared altogether.
The first modern state-sponsored lottery - a sweepstakes - was started by New Hampshire in 1964. The idea was sold as a way to provide funds for the public-school system without initiating sales or income taxes in the state.
During the late 1960s and '70s, states across the US began gambling on lotteries to help raise revenue notwithstanding the antitax fervor that gripped the country.
Today, "gambling is the second most prevalent form of raising revenue for states," says Durand Jacobs, a gambling expert at Loma Linda University in Riverside, Calif. "They've used gambling as a quick way to raise revenues in lieu of taxes. That is the major game across the country today."
"When you look at the whole approach to selling gambling since the 1970s, it was almost always to help education," says John Cross, a professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. "There's a lot of public sentiment for it, too."
Many states use the lottery funds for capital improvements in the education system, such as new school buildings, buses, or computers. Some states have chosen to earmark funds from the lottery for the elderly, the environment, transportation infrastructure, or economic development.
"Most people would say that it's a good alternative to raising taxes," says Bill Bergman, executive director of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries in Washington. "They understand that it is a sort of new-found money."
But many legislators still resist the idea.
"The underlying politics of this is that earmarking lottery revenues to beneficial activities - whether for education or other benevolent and desirable outcomes - makes them easier for legislatures to pass or for voters to accept," says Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nev.
Some critics charge that government should not be directly involved in gambling.
"The way you get around that is by balancing the moral questions involved in gambling with the moral benevolence of earmarking funds for education, the elderly, or other deserving groups," Mr. Eadington says.