Lottery is an arrangement where prizes are allocated by a process that depends on chance. The practice has a long history, dating back to the 15th century in the Low Countries where public lottery games were used to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. Later, private lotteries became popular in England and America, helping finance a wide variety of private and public projects including roads, libraries, canals, churches, schools, colleges (including Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, Yale, and King’s College), and even wars.
While people like to gamble and there is an inextricable human impulse that makes many play the lottery, the real reasons are more complicated. The huge jackpots, promoted by billboards and newscasts, dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.
State lotteries are also political creatures, subject to both the demands of the public and the peculiarities of state constitutions and political processes. As a result, they are prone to criticism that ranges from the relatively mundane – the high number of repeat winners – to the more profound – the alleged regressive effects on lower-income people and the distortion of democratic decision making.
These criticisms, however, often miss the mark. The problems with lottery are not intrinsic to the lottery itself, but rather the way that states organize their lotteries and how they promote them. It is a case of policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight or consideration of the impacts on the broader society. Once the lottery is established, it becomes a force that is difficult to change.
During the period of expansion following World War II, lottery revenues enabled states to increase their array of services without raising particularly onerous taxes on middle and working class people. This shifted the emphasis of lottery operations from public service to revenue generation, leading to the growth of new games such as video poker and keno and an aggressive effort to promote them. This trend has created a number of issues:
The most pressing problem is that state lotteries are run as business enterprises, with an explicit focus on maximizing revenues. The advertising that supports these efforts inevitably promotes gambling. This is a fundamentally flawed strategy. Not only does it promote the activities of a business that exploits vulnerable populations, but it runs state governments at cross-purposes with the general public interest.
While the lottery is a powerful tool for raising money, it should be utilized for its true purpose – funding public services. This will require an effort to expand public choices, rather than limiting them to a single source of revenue. Fortunately, there are a few states that are moving in the right direction. Hopefully, others will follow their lead. In the meantime, the federal government should limit its role in regulating the lottery and reducing its profits. This will make it harder for states to subsidize gambling and encourage people to spend their hard-earned dollars on tickets that are more likely to lose than to win.