Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is an arrangement in which prizes (usually money) are allocated among a group of persons by chance. It is a form of gambling and in some countries has been legalized. In the United States, for example, about 50 percent of Americans buy a ticket at least once a year. The lottery has become a huge business, with prize funds in the billions. Those who play the lottery tend to be lower-income and less educated, and are more likely to be men. In many cases, lottery play is a serious addiction.

Although casting lots for decisions and determining fates by lot has an ancient history, it is the modern lottery that has become one of the most popular forms of gambling. People spend billions of dollars on tickets annually, and many consider it their last or best chance for a better life. However, the chances of winning are very slim. In addition, the addictive nature of the game can lead to financial ruin if played to excess. In fact, some who have won large sums of money from the lottery have seen their quality of life decline significantly after the windfall.

Lotteries are a classic example of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. In most states, authority over lotteries is divided between the legislative and executive branches, and in some instances even within these departments. This fragmentation leaves the general welfare as a central consideration only intermittently and inconsistently. As a result, state officials often inherit policies that they cannot change and that depend on revenues that they can do nothing about.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress voted to establish a lottery in order to raise funds for the war effort. Privately organized lotteries were also common in colonial America, and helped finance buildings at Harvard, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and William and Mary. George Washington even sponsored a lottery in 1768 to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In the post-World War II era, state governments used lotteries to raise money for everything from highway construction to public education. The popularity of the lotteries was based on the belief that they would be an easy way to increase funding without raising taxes, and in some cases, eliminating them altogether. This was a particularly attractive proposition in times of economic stress when the public might be willing to take on an extra tax burden in exchange for greater access to public goods. However, studies have shown that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to influence the decision to adopt a lottery.

You may also like