Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. The names of the winners are chosen by random drawing. The first winner may receive a prize such as a car or cash, while the remaining players are rewarded with lesser amounts. Some governments prohibit this type of gambling, while others endorse it and run state-sponsored lotteries. A lottery is also used in some sporting events to select draft picks for a team’s roster.

Throughout history, lotteries have raised substantial sums of money for public projects. In addition to financing the construction of the British Museum and other major public works, they have also paid for countless local endeavors such as building a bridge or repairing a park bench. Some states have even used them to raise funds for their social safety nets. But lotteries are a classic example of how government at any level can be caught up in a dynamic that is at cross-purposes with the general public interest.

Once established, state lotteries tend to grow in scope and become dependent on the revenue they bring in. As a result, pressures are constant to expand the lottery into new forms of gambling such as keno and video poker. In the process, public policy is skewed in ways that can be hard to analyze and manage.

Lotteries are based on the theory that most people are willing to risk a trifling sum in return for a small chance of a considerable gain. As such, they are viewed by many as a substitute for taxes. This perception was strongest in the immediate post-World War II period, when state governments had just begun to grow their array of services without especially onerous burdens on poor and working families.

But as the economy shifted, so did attitudes toward gambling. By the 1970s, when many people were facing high unemployment and a weakening of social safety nets, public opinion began to change. Those who were skeptical of the benefits of government spending and insecure about their own economic prospects began to believe that lottery revenues would provide them with a way to get the goods they wanted while avoiding an increase in their taxes.

As a result, the number of states that offer lotteries has nearly doubled since the 1960s. In a country that prides itself on its democratic principles, the proliferation of these state-sponsored lotteries has been controversial. Some critics have argued that they promote gambling among the poor and minorities, and can undermine public morals. Others have pointed out that the lottery is a tax on consumers and that it can actually harm those who cannot afford to play. But the most important question that remains is whether lottery funds can be trusted to deliver on their promises of providing a painless source of revenue for state governments. To answer that question, it is necessary to examine the way these lotteries are run as businesses and the ways they can be used to achieve public goals.