Should the Government Promote the Lottery?


A lottery is a gambling game in which tickets are sold for chances to win prizes based on random drawing. Almost all states operate lotteries. Some states have a state-run agency to manage the lottery, while others license a private firm to run the games in return for a cut of the profits. Regardless of the management structure, state lotteries share several characteristics: they offer multiple games, have large prize amounts, and use aggressive marketing to promote the games. Lottery is the largest form of legalized gambling in the United States, and it raises billions of dollars each year. Its revenue is a significant part of many state budgets, but how meaningful it is to the broader economy and society and whether or not it should be promoted by the government merits scrutiny.

The distribution of property and even life by the casting of lots has a long history (including numerous instances in the Bible), but the modern lottery was introduced as a way to raise money for state government projects without significantly increasing taxes. This arrangement proved popular in the immediate post-World War II period, when states were seeking to expand their array of services without having to increase taxes on middle- and lower-class citizens.

But as lottery play has grown, so have concerns about the nature of its societal impact. A common concern is that it encourages irrational and often harmful gambling behavior, but there are also broader issues. Lottery players tend to be disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male, and participation rates decline with income. Given the lottery’s emphasis on advertising, it is also hard to deny that promoting this type of gambling is at cross-purposes with the government’s social mission.