• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Public Policy and the Lottery


Jan 14, 2024

A lottery is a form of gambling in which tokens are distributed or sold and a single winner chosen by drawing lots. The word also describes a selection made by lot, as in “They considered combat duty to be a lottery.” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition)

Lotteries are not popular with everyone. The player base tends to be disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. And the moneymakers are not a small segment of the population—they are state and federal governments, which take about 40 percent of all winnings in taxes and fees.

As such, lotteries are classic examples of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, without much overall overview or consideration for the general welfare. Lottery officials may argue that the lottery is a way to raise revenue for specific projects that would otherwise require higher taxation or cuts in other programs, but these arguments do not hold up to close scrutiny.

The underlying dynamic, however, is that state governments are dependent on the lottery’s “painless” revenues, which are then subject to constant pressure to increase. This can lead to a sort of addiction, where state officials find themselves prioritizing the lottery over other policies, and in which public welfare concerns are lost.

As a result, many states are now struggling with gambling addiction. A key issue is that lottery proceeds are rarely used for projects that benefit the public. Instead, a lot of the money ends up in government coffers, where it is spent on everything from education to prisons.