The Politics of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbered tickets are sold for a prize, typically money. State lotteries are very popular, with Americans spending more than $100 billion a year on tickets. People play for the chance to win big, but the odds of winning are low. Lotteries are a way for states to raise money without raising taxes, but critics say they aren’t a good idea because they are addictive and encourage poor behavior.

The casting of lots to decide questions or to determine fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible, but state-sponsored lotteries distributing prizes for material gains have only relatively recent origins. Lottery games are very popular, and the prizes on offer are often large enough to influence important choices by individuals and society as a whole.

Until the 1970s, most state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles: The public bought tickets for a drawing at some future date, often weeks or months in the future. After the introduction of new games in that decade, however, they became a much more sophisticated industry. The introduction of scratch-off tickets in particular allowed people to participate immediately, without waiting for a drawing to take place. These new games were much more like games of chance than the older raffles, and they quickly proved very popular.

Most state lotteries also developed extensive, specific constituencies for themselves: convenience store owners (the primary vendors of lottery products); suppliers to the industry (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (in states where the proceeds from a lotto are earmarked for education); state legislators, and so on. These constituencies often shape the direction of the lottery’s operations, and it is difficult for politicians to resist pressure from these groups when considering changes to its policies.

As a result, the decisions about how to run a lottery often become matters of “following the crowd,” in which popular demand sets the policy course. In addition, many public officials who are tasked with the responsibility for running a lottery often have few if any relevant background or experience in the field. This often leads to policies that have significant adverse consequences, such as regressive effects on lower-income groups and the promotion of excessive gambling.

Although a state’s ability to run a successful lottery may have some important benefits, it should not be allowed to be a substitute for a coherent, comprehensive government budget or for effective means of raising tax revenue. Moreover, because the goal of lottery advertising is to maximize revenues, it raises important ethical issues: Does promoting gambling have negative consequences for people in need? Is it appropriate for a state to promote this sort of behavior, and is it in the best interests of its citizens? This article examines these and other questions. It also looks at some of the ways that people are trying to beat the odds by playing the lottery.