Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine ownership or other rights. Its history dates back to the Old Testament and Roman emperors’ practice of giving away slaves and land through drawing lots. The practice was brought to America in 1612. Today, state lotteries raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects, and millions of people play.

Lotteries generate huge revenues but have a number of problems. First, the rapid growth in revenue typically peaks and then begins to decline. This is due to the boredom factor in which players become less enthusiastic about a long wait to see what they may or may not win. As a result, new games are introduced to attract interest and sustain revenues.

These new games can be fun and add to the variety of ways in which lottery players spend their money, but they also exacerbate existing concerns about alleged negative effects on poorer people and problem gamblers. In addition, promoting these games necessarily promotes gambling and competes with other forms of entertainment.

Finally, the fact that lottery revenues are a form of gambling makes it difficult for public officials to manage them. Consequently, most states have no coherent gambling policy and little understanding of how their lotteries work. Public policy decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, and are often at cross-purposes with the ongoing evolution of the industry. For example, many state governments have come to rely on lottery revenues as a source of “painless” taxes and thus are reluctant to increase them.