Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize, usually money. Prizes can also be goods or services. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. Modern lotteries are similar to raffles in that the purchaser of a ticket has a small chance to win, but they have far larger prizes and much higher jackpots.

Historically, public lotteries have gained popular support when they are presented as a painless alternative to higher taxes and cuts to social programs. The public is told that lottery proceeds are a gift from the state’s citizens who voluntarily spend their own money on a chance to benefit others. However, the lottery industry’s history is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall overview. Few, if any, states have a coherent gambling or lottery policy. The industry has its own agenda, driven by continuous pressure for additional revenues. The result is that lottery officials have a limited ability to take the general welfare into consideration, and they are subjected to constant, sometimes overwhelming pressure to expand the number of games offered and the prizes on offer.

As a result, lottery advertising frequently presents misleading information about the odds of winning (e.g., the likelihood of selecting a certain number); inflates the value of money won (lottery prizes are generally paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value); and makes lurid claims about how the lottery will improve the quality of people’s lives. Lotteries are also criticized for recruiting a player base that is disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male.

One of the most important issues in determining the success or failure of a lottery is how it is financed. Governments have the choice of either using general tax revenues or setting aside a special appropriation to the lottery. The latter option has been a key factor in the success of many lotteries, because it gives the legislature the opportunity to portray itself as being good stewards of its citizens’ hard-earned income.

But critics point out that earmarking lottery proceeds for specific purposes does not increase the amount of funds available for those programs, it simply allows the legislature to reduce the appropriations it would otherwise have to make from the general fund. This is akin to taking money out of your paycheck and putting it into an interest-bearing account instead. The fact is, most people who play the lottery do so based on the hope that they will find some magic bullet that will solve their problems. But God forbids coveting money and things that money can buy (see Exodus 20:17). Those who hope to improve their lives by winning the lottery are playing a fool’s game. Their problems will not disappear, but they will feel like they have done their “civic duty” to help the kids and so on.