Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which players purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize. The prizes are usually money or goods. Each state enacts laws to govern the lottery. State lotteries are typically regulated by a separate state agency or commission, and the agencies will select and license retailers, train employees of those retailers to use lottery terminals, sell and redeem tickets, promote lottery games, pay high-tier prizes to winners, and ensure that retailers and players comply with the lottery’s rules. Each state has its own policies regarding lottery exemptions, including those that allow charitable, non-profit and church organizations to host lotteries.

The casting of lots for making decisions or determining fates has a long history in human society, as evidenced by several instances in the Bible and the Book of Song. However, the use of lottery for material gain is much more recent, dating back only to the 17th century in Europe. Lotteries were used in colonial America to finance private and public projects, such as paving streets, building wharves, and founding colleges and universities. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to finance construction of a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Most states today hold a lottery at least once a year. The public at large overwhelmingly supports these state-sponsored lotteries. In fact, more than 60 percent of Americans say they play the lottery at least once a year. This broad support for the lotteries masks the reality that they are regressive, and the people who play them are disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite.

When state lotteries began to develop in the immediate post-World War II period, many states envisioned them as painless forms of taxation that would enable them to expand their array of public services without having to raise taxes on middle-class and working class residents. But that arrangement began to collapse in the 1970s as inflation and federal spending accelerated, and the lotteries became less and less able to keep pace with rising government demands.

State lotteries are a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. Lotteries have their own internal structures and procedures, and they operate at cross-purposes with the rest of government. Lottery officials often argue that their responsibilities are to maximize revenues rather than the welfare of all citizens.

The advertising of the lottery focuses on persuading potential customers to spend their hard-earned money on a chance to win big. This strategy is aimed at increasing lottery revenues by attracting new players and by encouraging repeat play among existing ones. But it also obscures the regressivity of the lottery and lures low-income people into a costly addiction that is difficult to break. Moreover, the lottery’s image as a game with an unusually high jackpot is misleading and obscures the fact that it is an expensive form of gambling. This makes the lottery a dangerous form of public consumption that should be phased out.