Public Benefits of the Lottery


Across the United States, state-run lotteries are one of the most popular forms of gambling. Often, they take the form of scratch-off tickets or games that require players to pick a set of numbers from a range of 1 to 50 (although some have more or less). In addition to the obvious gambling aspect, most lotteries are advertised as ways to raise money for a variety of public projects and programs.

Using the drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, with references to lotteries in both ancient Roman and medieval Europe. In the 17th century, lotteries were especially popular in France. Lotteries were promoted by Louis XIV and were used for all or portions of the financing for many major projects, including repairing bridges and public buildings. Some states even had a lottery to supply cannons for the defense of Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

But lotteries are not the best way to raise money for public projects. While the prize amounts are large, the taxes required to support the prizes and the marketing costs are enormous, reducing the amount of cash that is available for other uses. Moreover, the fact that winning the top prize requires a huge investment of time and effort tends to discourage the average person from trying to win.

Despite the problems, lotteries continue to be very popular. They attract a broad base of consumers from all social classes, with the largest groups being convenience store owners and lottery suppliers. The lottery also develops very specific constituencies, with many people playing regularly and making regular contributions. In addition, the revenue generated from the lottery is usually earmarked by law for particular purposes, which makes it attractive to state legislators.

In recent years, the popularity of the lottery has fueled a growing movement to restrict it or at least to limit the type of people who can play. Some of this is a reaction to the fact that, as the economy has become more global and the number of jobs has declined, a larger share of the population has been unable to afford basic necessities such as housing, food, and medical care. But the bigger problem is that people have an inextricable desire to gamble, and the lottery offers them a chance to do so with big prizes.

There is also a strong message that is coded into the lottery, which is that anyone can win and that playing the lottery is fun. This message obscures the regressivity of the lottery and encourages people to spend a substantial percentage of their income on tickets, when they could be better spending that money on other things. The result is that many low- and middle-income families are relying on the lottery for a substantial portion of their incomes. This is a serious problem that should be addressed, not trivialized. In addition to the social injustices involved, it is bad for our society that so many of our citizens are depending on a game of chance to get them through tough times.