Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which tickets are sold and winners are chosen by chance. The prizes range from small items to large sums of money. The lottery is regulated by government authorities to ensure fairness and legality. The word comes from the Dutch noun lot meaning “fate.” A state-run lottery is known as a Staatsloterij or simply a lot. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, states used lotteries to raise funds for public projects and for education. Many famous Americans, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were avid supporters of public lotteries.

Making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record, with several instances in the Bible and other ancient texts. In modern times, however, lotteries are primarily a method of raising funds for public purposes. The first recorded lotteries offering tickets for prizes in exchange for cash were held during the Roman Empire for municipal repairs in Rome. Later, the lottery was employed to distribute property and slaves among members of a society. It was a common dinner entertainment at the Saturnalian feasts of wealthy people in the Roman Republic.

The lottery is a popular and convenient means of raising money for a variety of purposes. In the past, state politicians have praised it as a source of “painless” revenue, arguing that lottery players voluntarily choose to spend a small portion of their incomes for a chance to help others. The lottery is also an attractive way for private businesses to sell goods or real estate for more than would be possible through a regular sale. During the nineteenth century, public lotteries helped build several American colleges. Lottery sales were particularly important during the early days of the American Revolution, when Congress voted to hold a lottery to finance the war.

Today, most lotteries offer a single prize in the form of a lump sum. Often, the value of the prize is equal to the total amount of tickets sold. A portion of the proceeds is used to pay for the costs of the promotion and any taxes collected. The remainder is distributed in the form of a number of smaller prizes or in one large prize.

Despite the popularity of the lottery, there are many reasons to question its effectiveness as a public policy tool. The most significant problem is that it has not been shown to be a successful strategy for increasing overall public welfare. A substantial body of research demonstrates that the majority of lottery players come from middle-income neighborhoods and that the poor participate at levels disproportionately less than their share of the population.

Moreover, the vast majority of lottery ticket sales and profits come from the 21st through 60th percentile of income distribution, which means that the lottery is highly regressive and does not help the bottom quintile to move up in the economic ladder. In fact, the lottery may actually discourage entrepreneurship and innovation by convincing people that their best shot at success is through luck of the draw.