Public Support for the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which multiple people pay for the chance to win a prize, which can be large sums of money. It is operated by state governments and has become a popular way to raise money for public projects. State lotteries generate billions in revenue each year. The winners are chosen by drawing numbers from a pool of entries. The game has been around for thousands of years, but became a popular means to raise money in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

States that adopt lotteries enjoy broad public support. In states where lotteries are legal, about 60% of adults play at least once a year. State lotteries also develop specific constituencies: convenience store owners (who are often the main vendors of the tickets); suppliers of lottery merchandise, including scratch-off games; teachers in states where a portion of lottery profits is earmarked for education; and state legislators who grow accustomed to the extra revenue.

In many cases, the expansion of state lotteries has been accompanied by a lowering of state income taxes, and it is likely that these developments will continue to be an important factor in maintaining public support for lotteries. Moreover, state governments tend to rely on a particular argument in justifying their lotteries: the proceeds are designated for a specific public good, such as education. This is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when it plays on the public’s fear of tax increases or cuts in public services. But it is not always a persuasive argument in more favorable economic conditions, when the benefits of public spending are widely understood.

While the general public is generally supportive of lotteries, there are concerns about how they affect the poor and problem gamblers. State officials are concerned about the number of people who are addicted to gambling and who find that winning the lottery leads to a decline in their quality of life. They are also concerned about the effect that lotteries have on other forms of gambling and on the overall economy.

Despite these concerns, state officials have tended to make the lottery a monopoly and to devote only a small percentage of their budget to gambling. The result is that state policy is made in a piecemeal fashion, and the lottery’s evolution is at cross-purposes with other state policies. For example, many state officials are also concerned about the impact of casino gambling on local communities. The emergence of casinos has put the lottery in competition with other sources of revenue, such as taxes on gambling revenues and income. In the short term, this competition may force the lottery to change its policies and marketing strategies in order to compete effectively with other forms of gambling. In the longer term, it may have to give up its monopoly status. This will have significant political implications. Regardless of the outcome, it will have to do something to reduce the addictiveness of gambling and to help those who have developed an addiction.