Public Policy and the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase tickets for the chance to win a prize, often money. The term is also used for games in which a random procedure is used to determine the winner of a contest or other event. Although the casting of lots for making decisions or determining fates has a long history in human culture, state-run lotteries are a relatively recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, they have become extremely popular and are often hailed as “painless taxation.” In an anti-tax era, the popularity of lottery has led to many state governments becoming heavily dependent on its revenues and under constant pressure to increase them.

In addition to generating revenues, the public is sold that the lottery helps the poor, aids education, and serves other social purposes. These laudatory messages are used in an effort to ensure that lotteries remain popular. The truth, however, is that the majority of people who play the lottery are not low-income or even middle-income. In fact, one study found that the lottery players are disproportionately male, undereducated, and nonwhite. In addition, the average lottery player spends only about a dollar per week on tickets and the vast majority of winners are white, upper-income households.

A key point to consider is that lotteries are run as businesses, and thus operate at cross-purposes with the state’s larger public interests. The main objective of a business is to maximize revenues, and this is often achieved through an intense advertising campaign. The problem with this approach is that it encourages gamblers to spend money they may not be able to afford and contributes to the growing epidemic of gambling addiction. It also tends to reinforce the notion that gambling is “okay” because it raises money for the state, a message that plays well with people who are already highly susceptible to addictive behaviors.

Lotteries are also a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with no general overview. The initial establishment of a lottery is often followed by a process of gradual expansion in which new games are added to the existing line-up and public officials are pressured to generate ever higher levels of revenue. In this context, a public discussion about the appropriateness of a particular lottery is unlikely to take place.

While the state may have good reasons for running a lottery, the ultimate success of any public service depends on how much it is liked and supported by its potential beneficiaries. The popularity of the lottery is not necessarily a sign of societal approval of the practice, and its dependence on revenue from a largely unregulated activity may not be tenable in the long run. The state needs to reassess its current lottery policies and consider other alternatives that can achieve the same results with less risk. For example, it might be better to establish a tax on gambling profits to discourage the proliferation of addictive games.