The Lottery


The lottery is an arrangement in which one or more prizes are allocated by a process that relies on chance. Its defenders argue that it raises money for state governments without the stigma of taxation. They also point to the specific benefit of lottery proceeds, usually earmarked for education. The argument has its critics, however, mainly because of the abuses to which it is prone and because of the fact that state lotteries are inherently designed to promote gambling.

The casting of lots to decide fates or distribute property has a long record, going back at least as far as biblical times. The modern public lottery originated in Europe in the 15th century with town and city lotteries that raised funds to fortify defenses or help the poor. Augustus Caesar organized a lottery in the city of Rome for repairs, and later, Roman emperors gave away slaves and properties by lot as entertainment at Saturnalian dinner parties.

After New Hampshire established the first state lotteries in 1964, most states quickly followed suit. Today, there are 37 state lotteries with operating revenues of about $39 billion. Most state governments rely on the proceeds of these lotteries to pay for many services.

A surprisingly large percentage of the population plays the lottery regularly, and the numbers grow with age and income. Lottery participation is higher among men than women; blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; the elderly play less than middle-aged people; and Protestants play less than Catholics. Moreover, lottery play decreases with formal education, although non-lottery gambling increases with it.

Lotteries are run as a business, with an emphasis on marketing to maximize profits. Advertising messages emphasize the possibility of instant riches, and are targeted to a wide range of consumers. Lottery promotions are particularly effective in the suburbs, where people are free of the control of their employer and may be more receptive to messages that appeal to the desire to acquire wealth through unrelated means.

In addition, the lottery industry has built up extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (the usual vendors); suppliers of scratch-off tickets (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (in those states in which the revenue from lotteries is earmarked for education); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue.

The problem is that state officials are running a lottery at cross-purposes with the general public interest. Even if the promotion of gambling is relatively benign, it is hard for government at any level to manage an activity from which it profits. This is especially true in an era when state budgets are becoming increasingly dependent on the lottery for “painless” revenue. In other words, voters want to spend more, and politicians look at the lottery as a way to get that spending for free.