Public Policy and the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine prizes. In the United States, state lotteries have long enjoyed broad public approval and are among the most popular forms of gambling.

Lotteries have a particular appeal as a means of raising money for public goods and services, as they are inexpensive to organize and widely popular with the general population. However, they may be addictive. Those who purchase lottery tickets spend billions of dollars in foregone savings that could otherwise have gone toward paying down debt, saving for retirement or college tuition, or achieving other goals. And despite the high odds of winning, jackpots often grow to astronomical and apparently newsworthy amounts, which can encourage people to continue to play even when they can’t afford to do so.

Moreover, the vast majority of lottery players are from middle-income neighborhoods, while low-income communities have disproportionately less participation. In addition, state legislators often favor the development of lotteries because they are easy to pass and require little oversight. Lotteries also provide significant revenue to retail establishments that sell tickets, lottery suppliers (whose contributions to political campaigns are reported in many states), and teachers (in those states in which the proceeds are earmarked for education).

In this way, state lotteries are a classic example of a public policy that is adopted piecemeal and incrementally, with few, if any, overall considerations of the public good. The resulting dynamic creates a complex relationship between voters, politicians, and lottery officials.