Public Policy and the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and organize state-wide or national games. Some even regulate them to ensure that the prizes are used to benefit the public. The word “lottery” is probably derived from the Old Testament, where Moses was instructed to divide land among Israel’s inhabitants by lot. The lottery was also popular in Roman times, when emperors gave away property and slaves by lot. In colonial America, many private and public institutions were financed with lotteries, including roads, wharves, canals, churches, universities, and other civic projects. Lotteries were widely used during the French and Indian War, and George Washington sponsored a lottery to raise funds for a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

While some people might use the lottery to improve their lives by reducing their income tax or winning a big jackpot, the vast majority of players simply spend money on tickets in hopes that they will win. Often, the prizes are based on trivial events, such as the birthdates of family members. In some cases, the prizes are more serious, such as subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. The lottery is a classic example of a form of public policy that is established in piecemeal fashion with little overall oversight, and which tends to be driven by the needs and desires of specific constituencies.

In addition, lotteries are highly effective at generating revenues that can be used to fund government programs. However, they do so at the expense of other important governmental functions, such as maintaining public safety and education. This fact underscores the importance of evaluating lottery programs for their impact on the public welfare, particularly in light of growing concerns over problem gambling and its effects on poor and vulnerable populations.

Although some states have begun to examine the costs and benefits of lottery programs, they have not embraced the full range of research on the effects of gambling. The lack of research on the effects of lottery play on society is a significant obstacle to any attempt to regulate it.

The Huffington Post’s Highline recently ran a story about a retired couple who made $27 million over nine years through Michigan lotteries. The husband figured out that by buying huge amounts of tickets in bulk, he could maximize his chances of hitting the winning combination. Essentially, he was creating his own private lottery.

The article notes that lottery advertisements promote the idea that a lottery ticket will provide the winner with “an instant lifestyle”—but there is no evidence that any single set of numbers has a greater chance of winning than any other. Instead, lottery advertising focuses on promoting the excitement of scratching a ticket and suggesting that playing the lottery is fun and harmless. But this message obscures the regressive nature of lottery spending and misleads the general public about its impact on the population as a whole.