Public Services and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets that have numbers on them and hope to win prizes by matching them with those randomly selected by machines. It is the most common form of gambling in the United States and many other countries around the world. The winnings from lotteries are often used to support public services. In the United States, the most common types of lottery games are the number games and the cash games, in which participants pay a fee for the chance to match groups of numbers and win cash prizes. These games are sold by convenience stores, gas stations, churches and fraternal organizations, bowling alleys, restaurants, and newsstands. Approximately 186,000 retailers sell lottery tickets throughout the United States.

Making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long history, including several examples in the Bible, but the use of lotteries to distribute material goods is more recent. The first recorded public lotteries for money took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds to build walls and town fortifications and help the poor.

Most states regulate and operate their own lotteries, creating a state monopoly and forbidding private competition. A centralized system is preferred to an outsourced model, as it allows the state to better monitor and control the integrity of the game. Many of the same people who run the centralized system are also responsible for marketing and advertising, ensuring that the lottery meets high standards of honesty and fairness.

In the United States, 43 states plus the District of Columbia and the territories now have lotteries. These lotteries generate almost $28 billion annually for the benefit of state government programs. The proceeds from the sales of lotteries are used for public services, such as education, highways, and prisons. In addition, they fund the costs of a wide range of other state-supported programs and activities.

As with most public policy decisions, the establishment of a state lottery is generally accomplished piecemeal and incrementally. Each state legislates a monopoly for itself and establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its offerings in size and complexity.

Because lottery advertising is primarily directed at generating revenue, the lion’s share of its spending is devoted to persuading potential players to spend their money. This focus on generating revenue runs at cross-purposes with the general public interest, and may be detrimental to poor people, problem gamblers, and other disadvantaged groups.

A logical and ethical approach to the lottery would be to promote it only as a means of supplementing a state’s revenue from other sources, rather than as a replacement for taxes on individuals. It would also be appropriate to impose age and other restrictions on the participation of young children. Finally, it would be appropriate to limit the amount that an individual can invest in the lottery to a reasonable percentage of his or her income.