The Problems of the Lottery


The lottery is a state-sponsored form of gambling in which participants pay a small sum to try to win a large prize. It is a popular source of state income and has become increasingly widespread. But it is not without its problems. The most obvious problem is that lottery revenues come from gambling, an activity that can be a serious addiction and has been linked to various forms of social problems. In addition, a lot of the money is spent on advertising, which necessarily promotes gambling to the public.

Moreover, the way state lotteries operate is highly problematic. They tend to be operated in a piecemeal fashion and to rely heavily on specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (who supply most of the tickets); suppliers of equipment and services (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are routinely reported); teachers (in states where ticket sales are earmarked for education); and state legislators and the executive branch (which quickly become accustomed to the “painless” profits of the lottery). The result is that policy decisions are made in a fragmented, incremental manner and the needs of the general public are taken into account only intermittently.

In its most blatant forms, the lottery is a form of patronage politics, whereby certain groups of people are given special privileges by the state in exchange for their financial support. These privileges can include housing units in a subsidized apartment complex, kindergarten placements at a desirable public school, or draft picks for professional sports teams. Whether it is intended to or not, these practices can reinforce patterns of inequality and exclusion in society.

It is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of lottery players and revenues are derived from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. In other words, the poor do not participate in the lottery at significantly higher levels than their percentage of the population. The famous story of Jack Whittaker, the West Virginia construction worker who won the Powerball jackpot in 2002, remains a classic cautionary tale about how lottery winnings can ruin lives. He went on a spending spree and, when his winnings ran out, began giving stacks of cash to churches, diner waitresses, family members, and even strangers.

The modern era of state lotteries began in 1964 with New Hampshire’s establishment of a state lottery. Since then, virtually every state has introduced one. In each case, the state established a monopoly for itself and a government agency or corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits). It began operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, which soon became boring and generated low sales. To maintain or increase revenues, the state progressively added new games.

The prevailing logic is that the more games there are, the more likely someone will buy a ticket and the more money will be collected for prizes. But the question is: Is this a sensible function for government to undertake?