The Lottery and Its Public Benefits


The lottery, or drawing of lots, is a popular way for state governments to raise money for public projects. But, like any gambling enterprise, it can also be a source of controversy and criticism. In recent years, the number of states offering lotteries has increased substantially, and some people have raised concerns about the impact on poorer citizens and problem gamblers, as well as the general desirability of promoting gambling.

The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson portrays an iniquitous village ritual that arouses the reader’s disgust. Despite the fact that making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), using it for material gain is of more recent origin. The first recorded public lottery was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium, to raise money for the poor.

Many states have adopted lotteries as a means of raising revenue without increasing taxes. Lottery revenues have grown significantly over the past two decades, and most states now offer a variety of games, including scratch tickets, video poker, and Keno. This expansion has stimulated the development of new marketing strategies, such as the use of television advertising and a growing focus on marketing to specific segments of the population.

A key element in gaining and maintaining broad public support for state lotteries is the degree to which the proceeds are perceived as benefiting a particular public good, such as education. This argument has proven especially effective during periods of economic stress, when it is argued that lottery funds will prevent needed tax increases or cuts in public services. However, studies have shown that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to have much influence on its decision to adopt a lottery or on its level of public support for it.

In addition to the general appeal of the lottery’s financial benefits, state government officials are attracted by the lottery’s relatively low administrative costs and its ability to quickly generate substantial revenues. Lottery profits are typically divided among a large number of distinct beneficiaries, including convenience store operators, lottery suppliers (whose executives frequently make large contributions to state political campaigns), teachers (in those states in which some lottery proceeds are earmarked for education), and state legislators.

Lotteries are designed to attract players by promising large, headline-worthy jackpots. Generally, these amounts are not actually won very often, but they do provide the appearance of newsworthiness that drives ticket sales and public interest. In order to ensure that jackpots rise to these levels, lottery organizers increase the probability of winning by making it harder to win smaller prizes, thus forcing more tickets to be purchased. This strategy has become known as the “Jackpot Effect.” The result is that the average jackpot size grows to apparently newsworthy levels more often, and the likelihood of winning a small prize diminishes. This is one of the most common problems with the lottery system that must be addressed if it is to remain a viable revenue generator.