Public Policy and the Lottery

Lottery, in its most basic form, is a process of awarding prizes based on chance. People purchase tickets for a fixed amount of money and hope to match numbers or symbols to win a prize. The prizes may be cash, goods or services. The history of lottery dates back to at least the 15th century, when local governments in the Low Countries held lotteries as a way to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor. The modern state lottery is a regulated, organized system of distributing cash and other prizes to participants, often through convenience stores or retail outlets. In most states, the lottery is a government monopoly, and profits are redirected to state coffers.

Almost every state has a lottery and, despite some public-policy problems such as compulsive gambling and the regressive effect on lower income groups, it is still a popular way for people to try their luck at winning big. In fact, the number of states with lotteries has grown since the immediate post-World War II period, when voters saw it as a painless way to pay for public services that might otherwise be more onerous.

The major argument used by states to justify state lotteries is that, unlike taxes, players voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of others without losing any of their own wealth or buying power. While this argument has merit, the reality is that lottery revenue tends to come from people who have already voted for higher state spending and are thus unlikely to turn against it. Lottery revenues also tend to be concentrated among specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (who can rely on steady income from lottery sales); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states where part of the proceeds are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue).

One problem with this arrangement is that it obscures the regressivity of the lottery, making it seem like something everyone should play and not be ashamed of doing. Lottery advertising typically emphasizes the wackiness of the experience and the chance to win big, which hints at a hedonistic impulse that ignores the fact that most people who play the lottery are gambling away large portions of their income.

Another problem is that the lottery dangles the promise of instant riches, which can have disastrous consequences for those who cannot afford to manage such a windfall. It can lead to the type of over-indebtedness that exacerbates poverty and contributes to inequality. Moreover, it entices people to covet money and the things that it can buy, which violates Exodus 20:17 and other biblical prohibitions against covetousness.