Lottery is a form of gambling where players pay for tickets, choose a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit out combinations, and hope that their tickets match the winning ones. In exchange for their tickets, participants can win cash or merchandise prizes. In the United States, state governments run a wide variety of lotteries. Those that raise substantial revenues have broad and deep public support.
A key element in that support is the perception that proceeds from the lottery benefit a particular public good, such as education. This argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases or cuts to government services can generate popular disapproval. But studies have shown that the popularity of a lottery is not necessarily tied to a state’s actual financial health. The state’s fiscal situation may play a role in its choice to adopt one, but once it has done so, the lottery often wins broad public approval regardless of whether a state is experiencing a recession or boom.
Since New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, every state except Oregon has now followed suit. And in each case, the adoption process has followed similar patterns: the arguments for and against a lottery are strikingly similar; the structure of the resulting state agency or public corporation to manage it is generally similar; the initial number of games offered is similarly modest; and, because state governments are so highly dependent on this revenue source, pressures constantly build for a broader and more complex range of offerings.
The broader and more serious question, however, is whether it is appropriate for a state to be in the business of promoting gambling as a way to raise money. In an anti-tax era, it is easy to see how state governments come to depend on the painless revenues generated by a lottery, and politicians find themselves at cross-purposes with voters in opposing directions.
In an era of declining incomes and limited social mobility, the lottery lures low-income people with promises of instant wealth. Moreover, it promotes risky behavior by encouraging the belief that success in life is mostly a matter of luck. The real odds of winning are much higher than those in the advertising, but many people do not take the time to calculate them.
For a very small percentage of the population, lottery winnings can represent life-altering sums of money. But for the majority, they are just another chance to gamble with their hard-earned dollars. It seems a shame that the lottery is giving millions of Americans an opportunity to waste their money on something they would otherwise do without it.