The Public Interest and the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which participants pay a small sum to purchase tickets with numbers printed on them and then win prizes based on the drawing of lots. Prizes are typically money, but can also be goods or services. Lotteries are popular with many people because they are relatively cheap and easy to organize, making them a good way for governments and charities to raise funds. However, they are sometimes criticized for encouraging addictive behaviors and their regressive impact on lower-income groups.

The practice of distributing property or goods by chance is ancient and widespread. In the Old Testament, Moses used lotteries to distribute land, and the Roman emperors distributed slaves and property in lotteries during Saturnalian feasts. In more modern times, state lotteries have become a common fundraising mechanism for education and other public purposes. Lotteries have also raised substantial revenues for private enterprises, such as sports teams and casinos.

In the United States, the modern era of state lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964, and since then, most states have established them. State-sanctioned lotteries are often promoted as a “good” way to raise revenue for schools and other programs, but the real reason states adopt them is usually their need to increase tax revenue. During the boom years of the post-World War II period, the idea was that lottery proceeds could allow states to expand their array of social safety nets without imposing onerous taxes on middle and working class citizens.

State-sanctioned lotteries take in far more money than they pay out in prizes, even when the jackpots reach high levels. The reason is that lottery promoters know they need to attract many more players than they will pay out in prizes, and they use advertising to persuade them to do so.

But this strategy may be at cross-purposes with the broader public interest. Lottery advertising has been linked to increased consumption of alcoholic beverages, tobacco and gambling. It has also been linked to declines in academic performance and health, as well as social problems such as domestic violence, child abuse, and gang activity.

Despite these concerns, the popularity of lotteries remains strong. Almost 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. In addition to attracting the general public, lotteries have developed extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (the primary vendors for tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these suppliers to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which the proceeds of the lottery are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue).

While the lottery industry is not immune from criticism, its successes have been remarkable. From a policy standpoint, state lotteries have been an important tool in expanding the welfare safety net and financing economic development. But the success of the lottery model has also drawn attention to problems related to the promotion of gambling and the regressive nature of its funding, both of which will likely continue to shape its evolution in the future.