Public Policy and the Lottery


In a world of increasing inequality, soaring debt, and diminishing opportunities for upward mobility, lottery tickets promise people a chance to break free. But even though most players know the odds are long, they still play. The reason, in part, is that people plain old like to gamble. They also have this irrational sense that their last, best, or only shot at a better life is in the lotto. That’s the message that lottery officials are relying on.

Public lotteries have a long history, with some dating back centuries. Moses was instructed by the Lord to take a census of the Israelites and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property. Privately organized lotteries also were common in the 17th century. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson established one to help ease his crushing debts.

Lottery revenues typically expand dramatically after they’re introduced, but then level off and may even decline over time. So new games must be introduced regularly to maintain or increase revenue. This strategy also creates a special dependence for state lottery officials on the support of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (for whom lottery revenues are a major source of revenue); lottery suppliers and their lobbyists (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in states with earmarked lotto proceeds for education), and state legislators (who become accustomed to regular large-scale lottery infusions). All of this is an example of how public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally rather than by thoughtful, deliberate process, with little or no overall overview or consideration for public welfare.

Posted in: Gambling