Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a popular game of chance in which people try to win prizes, including cash or goods. It has also become an important source of revenue for many states. However, the lottery is not without its critics. These critics argue that it is a form of gambling that can have serious social and economic consequences, especially for the poor and problem gamblers. They also argue that the state’s lottery operations are often at cross-purposes with other public policy goals.

The first state to introduce a lottery was New Hampshire in 1964, and it was followed by nearly every other state soon after. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia operate lotteries. These lotteries are characterized by the enormous amounts of money that are raised and by the extensive publicity they receive. The lottery has also spawned a number of related businesses, such as convenience stores that sell the tickets, suppliers who provide services to the lottery, and television and radio advertising agencies. These businesses are a significant component of the industry, and they contribute heavily to the political campaigns of those who run the lotteries.

State officials who promote the lottery often emphasize its value as a painless source of revenue, arguing that it is a form of voluntary taxation in which the players spend their own money for the benefit of the public good. This argument is often effective, particularly when state governments are facing financial pressures that might otherwise require cuts in public programs or higher taxes. However, the popularity of the lottery has a much more complex relationship with state government finances than is suggested by this argument.

In fact, the success of a lottery can depend as much on the social dynamics of state politics as it does on its financial impact. State governments and licensed promoters use lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes, from paving streets to building colleges. Lotteries played an important role in colonial-era America, raising funds for the Virginia Company and helping to build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and Union College. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to finance the construction of a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The modern lottery is a classic example of how state governments often make policy by piecemeal and incremental steps, with little or no overall overview or consideration of the impact on society as a whole. As a result, most, if not all, state lotteries have developed large specific constituencies that influence their operations and the political debate over them. These include convenience store owners; lottery suppliers (whose contributions to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers, who in some states earmark lottery revenues for education; and the general public, who often plays the lottery regularly and enjoys it as an enjoyable pastime. These interests are often at odds with other state government priorities, such as social service and law enforcement. As the lottery’s popularity continues to grow, these tensions will only increase.