Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in the US. It raises billions of dollars annually and has become a fixture in American life. The vast majority of players are low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. Many buy tickets weekly and spend $50 or $100 a week. Despite the fact that the odds are astronomical, these people have a deep-seated desire to win. Those are the people that lottery marketers target directly. And the message they deliver is that winning the lottery is a good thing, an inextricable part of human nature.

Lotteries have been a feature of state government for centuries. During colonial America, they were used to fund everything from paving streets to constructing wharves and churches. But the lottery exploded in popularity after World War II, enabling states to expand their social safety nets without imposing particularly onerous taxes on middle-class and working-class residents. In the ensuing decades, state governments expanded their offerings of lotteries to new forms of games, including video poker and keno. In the process, they developed broad and deeply entrenched constituencies among convenience store operators; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which a portion of the proceeds are earmarked for education); and state legislators who quickly became accustomed to a steady stream of tax-free revenue.

In promoting their lotteries, state officials largely ignored or dismissed the growing research on problem gambling and its regressive impact on poorer groups. Instead, they relied on a set of messages that emphasized the benefits of winning the lottery and promoted the experience of buying and scratching a ticket. They also marketed the lottery as a source of public benefits and made it a civic duty to support it.

The evolution of lotteries demonstrates the difficulty of developing a coherent public policy on gambling. Policy decisions are often made piecemeal and incrementally, and there is little or no overall overview of the entire industry. It is a classic case of policy drift, and it is easy for state officials to find themselves dependent on revenue from a sector that they cannot control or even adequately regulate.

Lottery is a complex, multifaceted industry with its own nuances and intricacies. But its most basic elements are clear: It is a game in which people voluntarily spend their money to hope that they will be the winners, and it is a powerful force in society. The fact that so many do so demonstrates an inextricable human impulse to gamble, which is why the lottery remains so widespread and popular. It is an example of a social force that cannot be fully understood, but it deserves to be examined. As for its costs, there is a real need to consider the regressive impact of lottery spending and its role in societal inequality. State governments should be doing all that they can to minimize those effects.