Public Policy and the Lottery


In a lottery, players place a stake in a drawing to win a prize. The prizes can be money, goods or services. Those who buy tickets hope to match the winning numbers, but there is no guarantee that the winner will be announced in any given drawing. Depending on the lottery’s rules, the jackpot may roll over from drawing to drawing or be limited in value until it is claimed. The lottery’s rules are designed to attract and retain players by providing incentives for them to play.

In the early American colonies, lotteries were popular and provided a useful source of funds for public projects. Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to raise money for the purchase of cannons for defense of Philadelphia, and George Washington sponsored one to finance construction of his Mountain Road. Prizes were frequently in the form of land and slaves. In later years, state legislatures and the private promoters of lotteries resorted to lotteries to meet a variety of needs.

Those who oppose the use of lotteries as a means of raising public funds often argue that the proceeds are a disguised tax and that lotteries are an example of social engineering in which the public is being forced to subsidize those who can afford to gamble, while those who cannot do so suffer. They also argue that lotteries do not address the problem of compulsive gambling and that they are a regressive tax on lower-income groups. But these criticisms usually miss the point. Lotteries are a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview or control. The evolution of a lottery typically takes place without the involvement of the legislative or executive branch of government and often with the participation of private promoters and their lobbyists. As a result, the interests of the lottery and the larger public interest are frequently at cross purposes.

Lotteries also have a tendency to become self-perpetuating: once they are established, the revenue streams grow and the public’s acceptance of them grows, making it difficult or impossible for legislatures to discontinue them. State governments rely on lottery revenues to fund many of the same social programs that they would otherwise have had to raise through more onerous taxes, especially during times of economic stress. Lottery advocates respond that the popularity of lotteries reflects the desire of state residents to avoid higher taxes and the need to make tough decisions about government expenditures.

In addition, a lottery’s success depends on generating sufficient ticket sales to sustain the prize payouts and advertising costs. The promotion of a lottery often involves directing advertising dollars to specific target groups, including young people, women and minorities. This focus on certain segments of the population is a common feature of commercial advertising in general and has given rise to controversy about its effect on the wider society. Because lotteries are a type of gambling, they must compete with other forms of gambling for the public’s disposable income, and advertising strategies necessarily run at odds with broader government efforts to reduce gambling addiction and other problems associated with gambling.

Posted in: Gambling