Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a popular gambling game that gives away prizes to winners chosen by drawing lots. In the United States, state lotteries generate billions of dollars annually. Some people play for fun while others believe that winning the lottery is their answer to a better life. This article looks at how the lottery works and its influence on society. It also discusses how the lottery is a perfect example of the problem with public policy making in that it happens piecemeal, incrementally, and with little or no general overview.

Lotteries are as old as human civilization. The biblical book of Numbers instructs Moses to divide land among the Israelites by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property during Saturnalian feasts. In the fourteenth century, lotteries became increasingly popular in Europe and helped fund the construction of many English towns and universities, including Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard.

Early lottery games were simple. The players purchased a ticket for a drawing that would take place at some future date, often weeks or even months away. But innovations in the 1970s greatly changed lottery operations and introduced the “instant game.” Players could now purchase tickets for a draw that was immediately held. Instant games were more exciting and generated greater revenues than the earlier drawings.

The new lottery games were also more targeted to specific socio-economic groups. Men and older people tend to play more than women and the young; blacks and Hispanics participate at higher rates than whites; and lower-income players spend a much larger percentage of their income on tickets than the rich do. In addition, the lottery peaks in participation during times of economic stress.

During the economic crisis of the nineteen-sixties, when state budgets were in trouble and politicians sought ways to raise revenue without alienating anti-tax voters, lotteries gained popularity. In most states, lotteries were the only major source of funds outside of sales and income taxes.

Because the lottery is a business, it must maximize its revenues. To do so, it must advertise. Its advertisements are aimed at persuading target groups to spend money on tickets and, therefore, to contribute to its revenues. But running a lottery as a business puts it at cross-purposes with the public interest. Rather than promoting a responsible gambling industry, it promotes gambling and, in the process, contributes to problems such as poverty and problem gambling. In the end, the lottery is a classic example of a government activity that has a significant and negative impact on its constituents. Moreover, it is difficult to see how this practice can ever be justified on ethical grounds. Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, illustrates these points. Her depiction of evil deeds in a friendly and relaxed setting suggests that humankind is fundamentally deceitful in nature. Whether or not Jackson intended it, the story is a powerful reminder that gambling can have very dangerous consequences for individuals and society as a whole.