The Lottery and Public Policy

A lottery is a game of chance in which players pay an entrance fee, either a single sum or a percentage of their stakes, to be drawn for prizes. It is a form of gambling that has a long history, including several recorded instances in the Bible and ancient Rome. Modern lotteries are often organized by government and involve a series of drawn numbers or letters. Each number or letter represents a particular prize, and the winning ticket is one that matches all the numbers. Prizes may include cars, money, houses or even college tuitions.

The lottery is an example of the difficulty in governing any kind of public activity that profits from public funds. State lotteries in particular have developed extensive and specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (from whom state-sponsored lotteries purchase advertising space); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education), and state legislators who quickly become accustomed to the “painless” revenue streams that lotteries create.

Moreover, lottery advertising necessarily appeals to an inextricable human desire to gamble. As a result, lotteries promote a form of gambling that is at cross-purposes with the goals of most state governments, which are to serve the general welfare. In addition, because lotteries are private enterprises that prioritize maximizing revenues, they skew their marketing efforts towards the upper-middle and higher income segments of the population. The results are that the poor and the middle class participate in lotteries at lower-than-average rates and are disproportionately less represented among winners.