Does Promoting the Lottery Serve the Public Interest?


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for prizes. In modern times, it has grown to become a very popular pastime in most states and is governed by state law. In order to play, an individual must pay a small fee for a chance to win a larger prize. Those who play often do not think of it as gambling, but rather a recreational activity. However, this is a dangerous way to approach lottery because it has been shown to lead to a number of negative consequences including problem gambling and the draining of state budgets.

Lotteries are a very old idea, going back thousands of years. The practice of using random procedures to distribute property, slaves, and even soldiers during the ancient world is well documented. The first public lotteries were established in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns held drawing for money or other goods. These lotteries are known to have helped raise funds for town fortifications, and also to help the poor. Later, colonial America used lotteries to build colleges and other infrastructure projects.

During the immediate post-World War II period, many states embraced the idea of lotteries as a source of “painless” revenue—an arrangement that would allow them to expand services without onerous tax increases on the middle and working classes. However, this arrangement was not sustainable, and in recent decades state government spending has risen rapidly while lottery revenues have stagnated. This has created a difficult dilemma for many politicians and citizens: how to raise revenue without increasing taxes.

The answer for many states has been to promote new forms of gambling, such as keno and video poker. They have also begun to promote the lottery more aggressively through advertising. But the question is: does this strategy serve the public interest?

In promoting the lottery, state officials focus on two messages primarily. The first is that playing the lottery is fun, and the second message is to emphasize that the proceeds benefit the state. The latter message is misleading in that it obscures the regressive nature of lottery revenues and the disproportionate impact on lower-income groups.

Critics argue that much of lottery advertising is deceptive, presenting misleading information about the odds of winning the jackpot and inflating its value (lottery jackpots are usually paid in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding its current value). Critics also argue that lotteries undermine social values by normalizing gambling.

The fact that state governments are relying so heavily on the lottery to finance their budgets is alarming. It is a form of gambling that is designed to be addictive and deceptive, and it undermines our basic principles of fairness and honesty. It is important that lawmakers and voters understand these issues, so they can decide whether to continue to support this type of public policy.