Government Relations and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay a small amount to enter a drawing for a prize. The drawing may be for cash, goods or services. Generally, players select groups of numbers or symbols and hope that their selections match those randomly drawn by a machine. The lottery is popular with many people and is one of the few forms of gambling that is legal in most states. There are several problems with lottery gambling, however. For example, it is often addictive and can cause serious financial hardship for the winners. In addition, it can have adverse health effects. The lottery industry is regulated in many ways, but it continues to grow. Consequently, it has become important for policymakers to understand its consequences.

Governments at all levels have long been involved in the lottery business. The practice is rooted in ancient history, with biblical references to the Old Testament’s instructions to Moses to count Israel by lot and to divide their land. Later, Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves. Modern lotteries are used for military conscription and commercial promotions. They also serve as a method of selecting members of jury panels.

Lottery has become a significant source of state revenue and attracts a broad base of participants. These include the public, who play for a chance to win large sums of money; convenience store operators, who have built up extensive business relationships with the lottery and have developed their own advertising campaigns; suppliers, who make substantial contributions to state political campaigns; teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education), and state legislators.

A key element in the lottery’s success has been its portrayal as an alternative to raising taxes and cutting essential state services. This argument has proved effective during periods of economic stress, when the prospect of raising taxes and cutting services is most fearful among the public. Nevertheless, studies have shown that the popularity of the lottery is not necessarily connected to the objective fiscal condition of a state, as it can win broad public support even when state governments are in good fiscal shape.

Another problem is the lottery’s appeal to the American Dream of instant wealth. Its huge jackpot prizes are often advertised in a manner that suggests that everyone can become rich, encouraging many to believe that the lottery is their only chance. The reality, of course, is that the odds of winning are very slim–statistically speaking, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than becoming a billionaire through the lottery.

Moreover, because lotteries are run as a business, the promotional emphasis is on persuading people to spend money on tickets. This raises concerns about its effect on poor people and problem gamblers, and it is also at cross-purposes with the state’s mission to promote the general welfare. In an anti-tax era, when state government budgets are stretched to their limits, it is worth asking whether the lottery is a wise use of state resources.