Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for the chance to win a large sum of money. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries. The game is played by individuals who purchase tickets, often for a small amount of money, and hope to win the prize. Some people use the lottery as a way to finance their retirement or education, while others play it for the excitement of winning a big jackpot. Some people also play for religious or charitable purposes.

The modern lotteries began in the United States in the late 1960s and quickly spread. They grew popular in part because they could be used to raise money for public services, such as education. Many states, especially those with high property taxes, adopted them because they offered an alternative to raising those taxes or cutting public programs.

Initially, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles in which people bought tickets for a drawing at some future date, weeks or months away. But innovations in the 1970s brought about a dramatic shift. Now people could buy lottery tickets for instant games, such as scratch-off tickets. These had lower prizes, but the odds of winning were much higher than in traditional lotteries. As a result, instant games became incredibly popular.

In the 1990s, as the wealth gap widened and financial security in the workplace eroded, Americans’ obsession with unimaginable riches soared, along with dreams of hitting the lottery. The lottery’s popularity coincided with a fading of the old national promise that working hard would make you richer. People realized that, unlike their parents, they did not have secure jobs or pensions and that health-care and housing costs had exploded. In this new reality, the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot provided an escape from real problems.

One of the most significant aspects of the lottery is that, in the United States at least, the games are government-sponsored and controlled by the states. As a result, they have become a form of taxation, and the profits are collected by the government. State lotteries are a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. The responsibilities of lottery officials are divided between the legislative and executive branches, and even within each branch, authority is fragmented.

The early history of state lotteries in the United States is a good case study in how political ideology shapes policy decisions. While Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both supported the idea, there were significant differences of opinion on how they should be regulated. Hamilton argued that lotteries should be kept simple, and that “everybody will always be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain… and prefer a small probability of winning much to a great probability of winning little.” This logic was eventually adopted by the Continental Congress, which used the lottery to fund the Revolutionary War.