Public Policy and the Lottery

Lotteries are games of chance, where participants purchase tickets and hope to win a prize. Although the casting of lots for determining fates has a long history (including several instances in the Bible), the lottery as an instrument for material gain is comparatively recent, dating to about 1466 in Bruges, Belgium. While lotteries are an important source of revenue for many states, critics argue that they can have adverse social consequences for lower-income groups and lead to addictive behavior.

In the United States, state lotteries are thriving, drawing Americans to spend over $100 billion a year on tickets. But the lottery’s rocky history as a public enterprise and a form of gambling has left it with a mixed legacy.

Until the 1970s, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with bettors writing their names on tickets or depositing numbered receipts for later shuffling and selection in a lottery drawing. But innovations in the industry in the 1970s ushered in an era of instant games, including scratch-off tickets, with smaller prizes but still high odds of winning. The popularity of these newer lotteries prompted the establishment of state-wide rules governing their operations and requiring them to set a minimum percentage of proceeds that goes to organizing, promoting, and managing the games.

The percentage of profits that must go to these costs typically leaves a relatively small pool from which lottery officials may choose the frequency and size of prizes for the various lotteries in operation. Lottery revenues initially expand dramatically after a lottery’s introduction, but then tend to level off or even decline. To maintain or increase profits, lottery officials must introduce new games to attract potential bettors.

While the games themselves are a key part of any lottery, the messages they convey are another crucial element. For many people, the lottery is not just a game but an avenue to a better life. They take the games seriously and spend a significant portion of their incomes on them, even though they know the odds are slim. They have quote-unquote systems — often irrational — about lucky numbers and stores, and about the best times of day to buy tickets.

But the fact is that lotteries are a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with limited overall visibility or oversight. Moreover, because the state legislature controls the lottery, its authority and pressures are fragmented. It is easy for lawmakers to reduce the amount of money earmarked by a lottery for a particular program and to divert it to other purposes, which critics say undermines the effectiveness of those programs. This is what has happened to education funding, for example. Critics also note that earmarking of lottery funds allows legislators to avoid making the hard choices of cutting other programs or raising taxes.

Comments are closed.