Should State Governments Promote the Lottery?

The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which numbered tickets are sold and winning numbers drawn to determine prizes. It is also a source of government revenue, generating more than $100 billion in the United States in 2021 alone. In a society that seems to value instant fame and fortune more than almost anything else, lotteries are a way for people to try their luck at getting those things, often by spending money they could otherwise spend on other things. But is it wise for state governments to promote these games?

The idea of determining fates and making decisions by drawing lots has a long history. It is mentioned in the Bible and was used by Romans for municipal repairs, and it is recorded in the cities of Bruges and Ghent to raise funds for poor relief. In the 17th century it was common for towns and private lotteries to organize draws with cash prizes, and the Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij dates from this period (1726). The word lottery comes from the Dutch noun “lot,” meaning fate, and was incorporated into English in the early 18th century.

Throughout the ages, the popularity of the lottery has varied greatly with the social and economic context. It is most effective when states are able to frame the lottery as an alternative to tax increases or cuts in public services. The immediate post-World War II period was one such time, and the popularity of the lottery soared. But this arrangement began to crumble even as states struggled with inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War.

From this point on, the success of a lottery has depended less on its ability to deliver a public good and more on its ability to generate a great deal of money, quickly. This dynamic has shaped the debate over state lotteries to this day.

When a state adopts a lottery, it typically faces intense public scrutiny and criticism. Debate focuses on whether a lottery is good for the state and its citizens, and on specific features of the operation. Concerns about the regressive impact on low-income groups, issues related to problem gamblers, and other issues of public policy are often raised.

While it is important for state governments to raise the money needed to provide essential public services, it is also crucial that they do so in a responsible manner. State lotteries must balance the needs of many different stakeholders, including the people who play them, taxpayers who do not, and the businesses that benefit from their promotion.

To maximize their profits, the promoters of state lotteries must continually develop new games and strategies to increase participation and revenue. A major recent innovation has been the advent of instant games, such as scratch-off tickets. These allow players to purchase tickets for a future drawing, but the prize amounts tend to be lower and the odds of winning are usually much smaller than in traditional lotteries.