Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is a state-run contest that gives a small number of people a big prize in exchange for a very low chance of winning. Its defenders often argue that it is a way for voters to help finance a particular public service without imposing additional taxes on other citizens, and that it is a better alternative to raising property or sales taxes. But there are real problems with this argument, as well as with the idea of lotteries as a means of funding anything other than education or other public goods.

State lottery policies are almost always established piecemeal, with little or no general overview and a great deal of discretion given to lottery officials. This creates a situation where, even when the general public welfare is the primary concern, there may be serious conflicts between state government policy and lottery industry interests.

Before the 1970s, most state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with tickets sold for a drawing at some future date, weeks or months away. In the seventies, however, lottery officials introduced a series of innovations that dramatically changed the industry. These changes, combined with a new understanding of the role of gambling in society, have led to a major change in lottery marketing and the way that people play the game.

Lottery advertisements now focus on two main messages, both of which obscure the regressive nature of the gambling industry. One is that the lottery is a game, and that it is fun to play. The other is that lottery revenues are helping to fund a particular service, usually education, for which there is broad support among voters.