Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay to be selected at random for a prize, usually money. A lottery is typically operated by a government agency, although private companies may run some as well. Lotteries have a long history, dating back centuries, and were used by ancient Romans to distribute property and slaves. They were widely adopted in colonial America, where they financed roads, libraries, churches, canals, and even colleges.

Today, state lotteries are highly popular and bring in billions of dollars annually. But they also raise many important questions, including whether they are appropriate forms of public policy. When people play the lottery, they are engaging in a form of risk-taking that is associated with a range of problems — compulsive gambling, negative consequences for lower-income individuals, and other ethical concerns.

Until recently, most state lotteries were run like traditional raffles, in which the public buys tickets for a drawing that will be held at some future time. In the early 1970s, however, new innovations transformed the industry. These new games, called instant games, offer smaller prizes and much higher odds of winning. They are marketed to different types of customers, including convenience store owners (to whom the games tend to be sold); lottery suppliers (who frequently make heavy contributions to state political campaigns); and teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education).

The popularity of these instant games has generated new debate about the nature of the lottery and its role in society. Critics argue that they promote excessive spending and undermine responsible economic policies. Proponents respond that the games provide people with a value that they cannot get elsewhere, especially for those in lower income groups who see little hope for their futures other than the lottery’s irrational promise of wealth.