Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is a popular way to raise money for state governments. While casting lots to determine fates and property distribution has a long history, the modern public lottery is a relatively recent development in American political life. Many states established lotteries after World War II out of a desire to expand their range of social services without raising taxes. Lotteries have become an integral part of American society, with more than half of the United States states having one.

The modern state lottery is a classic example of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with the results that the general public welfare is taken into consideration only intermittently. The lottery evolves from the nexus of numerous specific interest groups: convenience store operators; lottery suppliers, who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns; teachers (in those states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and, of course, the players themselves.

Lottery players are generally well educated and middle-aged men with high incomes, who participate in the lottery at much higher rates than their percentage of the population. They play for the chance to win, and they go into it clear-eyed about the odds. Many of them also have quote-unquote systems that are not borne out by statistical reasoning, about lucky numbers and stores and times to buy tickets and what kind of tickets to buy.

Lottery advertising necessarily focuses on persuading these specific interest groups to spend their money. The question is whether this promotion of gambling will result in negative consequences for poor and problem gamblers, as well as people who can’t afford to play the lottery at all.