Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a method of awarding prizes that depends on chance. Most states operate state lotteries, which offer a variety of games, including instant-win scratch-off games, daily games, and the chance to win a grand prize such as a luxury home, automobile or a trip around the world. In addition, many private entities hold lotteries to award units in subsidized housing, kindergarten placements or other public goods and services. These lotteries are often criticized as being addictive forms of gambling, but some of the money raised by these lotteries is used for good in society.

A common definition of a lottery is “any scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance.” The first recorded lotteries occurred in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when various towns held them to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The term lottery is probably derived from Middle Dutch loterie, a play on words involving the nouns “lot” or “fate,” and the verb “to draw.”

The modern public lottery originated in Britain during the Victorian era, with William Pitt’s Lottery Act of 1849. The Act established a government commission to run state-sponsored lotteries. The commission was responsible for overseeing the design, marketing and sales of all state-sponsored lotteries. It also had the power to investigate and punish anyone who violated the act.

Lotteries are popular because they offer a low-risk way to raise funds. In addition, they are generally perceived as being a painless form of taxation, as they do not result in the same fiscal pressures that might be caused by higher taxes or cuts to public programs. However, these benefits are not without their drawbacks. The most obvious are the negative consequences for the poor, problem gamblers, and other at-risk groups. Additionally, the promotion of gambling by state governments may be at cross-purposes with the larger public interest.

The evolution of state lotteries illustrates a fundamental principle of public policy: Once established, policies are difficult to change. This is particularly true of lottery policies, since state officials are accustomed to the perks and revenue of this form of government-sponsored gambling.

In an anti-tax era, it is tempting for state governments to promote lottery games as a painless alternative to taxes. This practice creates a situation in which government officials find themselves dependent on a source of revenue that they can do little to control, and face increasing pressures to increase the amount of money that the lottery brings in. Moreover, the fact that lottery policies are largely made in piecemeal fashion, with authority divided among the executive and legislative branches, contributes to the problem.