The Problems of the Lottery


The lottery has become one of the most popular forms of gambling in the United States. It raises billions of dollars annually and is played by more than 50 percent of Americans, although most play only occasionally and for small prizes. It is often viewed as a benign form of gambling, especially in comparison to other forms, such as casinos or horse racing. But it is not without its serious problems.

Lotteries are arrangements that assign prizes based on random chance, and they have a long history of use as means for raising money for public purposes. They were a regular feature of colonial American life, and in the 1740s and 1750s they helped finance roads, canals, libraries, colleges, and churches. They also played a significant role in financing private and public ventures during the French and Indian War. Many of these projects were financed by local lotteries that charged tickets and distributed tickets in exchange for a fee, a percentage of sales, or both.

Modern state-run lotteries typically start with a legal monopoly that bars other operators from offering lotto products; establish a government agency or public corporation to administer the lottery; begin operations with a modest number of games and prizes; and, in response to continued demand for increased revenues, gradually expand the scope and complexity of the game offerings. Most lotteries, however, do not offer all-cash prizes; instead they tend to award large lump sums, frequently paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value.

As a result, lottery advertising is almost exclusively focused on persuading people to spend more of their money by buying more tickets. The marketing is particularly aggressive in those states where the lottery profits are earmarked for education and other public programs. This raises the question of whether or not lotteries are serving a legitimate public purpose.

In addition to the fact that lotteries encourage excessive spending, they can be harmful in other ways. Some players are highly vulnerable to the irrational and addictive nature of gambling. They may develop “quote-unquote systems” for selecting tickets, rely on lucky numbers or stores to buy them, or have other irrational behavior. For others, the lottery is a last-ditch attempt to escape from poverty and a life of struggle and frustration. They feel that if they can only win the lottery, they will finally get their life together. This sense of desperation has a dark underbelly. It is not surprising that the lottery has been used to promote drugs, prostitution, and other illicit activities. It is also not surprising that state lotteries are prone to corruption. State officials can easily be influenced by those who stand to benefit from the lottery and are insecure about the legitimacy of state taxation. Lotteries, as a consequence, operate at cross-purposes with the state’s overall policy goals. They undermine social cohesion and create unintended consequences. They should be subject to close scrutiny and regulation, including limits on their promotional practices.