Public Policy and the Lottery


Lotteries are a popular gambling activity in which the prize money is determined by drawing lots. The prize amounts vary but are typically large enough to attract large numbers of participants. The lottery is also a popular way to raise funds for public purposes such as roads, bridges, schools, libraries, and churches. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British. Lotteries are still in operation today, with more than 37 states and the District of Columbia having one or more.

Despite being based on a pure game of chance, lottery participants often take it very seriously. They may spend a substantial portion of their incomes on tickets, and they frequently buy multiple tickets to increase their chances of winning. In addition, many of them believe that certain numbers have special meanings, and they may even have quote-unquote “systems” for picking their numbers, such as avoiding certain numbers or buying their tickets at specific stores.

While the popularity of lotteries continues to grow, some people question whether it is an appropriate form of public policy. Many critics of the lottery argue that it promotes gambling and can have negative social consequences, particularly for poor people and problem gamblers. Others claim that the lottery is a form of taxation that distorts the market and hurts consumers.

State lottery officials have long tried to counter these concerns by stressing the benefits that the games provide to their constituents. The official message has been that the lottery is good for the state because it raises a significant percentage of its revenue. While this may be true, it obscures the regressivity of lottery revenues and trivializes the gambling behavior that underlies these revenues.

The history of state lotteries demonstrates considerable uniformity in their evolution: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public corporation or agency to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure for additional revenue, progressively expands the scope and complexity of its offerings. In the process, it also loses sight of its original public policy goals.

In order to increase sales and generate publicity, lottery organizers strive for super-sized jackpots. These prizes are advertised in a variety of ways, including on television and news websites. Super-sized jackpots attract more lottery players and thus increase the odds of a big win. But this approach also undermines the public’s confidence in the fairness and integrity of the lottery.

Another problem with the lottery is that it promotes gambling at cross-purposes to other state functions. While it is legitimate for the state to encourage its citizens to spend their time and money on recreation, it is not its job to promote an activity that can have serious social and economic consequences. The state should focus its efforts on ensuring that its regulatory and enforcement mechanisms are sufficiently strong to protect the public from abuses.