The Problems of the Lottery


The lottery is a state-sponsored form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets for a chance to win prizes ranging from cash to goods and services. The prizes are awarded by drawing numbers in a predetermined format, with the odds of winning on any given draw typically being about one in four or five. The modern era of lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964, and since then most states have adopted them. However, the expansion of these state-sponsored gambling activities has created problems that go beyond the mere promotion of a vice. These issues include: the distribution of prizes to specific groups; the reliance on these activities as sources of revenue; and the social costs associated with them.

The history of lotteries is a familiar one in the United States, where they have played an important role in raising money for a wide range of public purposes, from building roads to supplying schools and colleges. In colonial America, they were used to finance such projects as paving streets and constructing wharves. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution. Lotteries were also hailed as an effective, painless way to raise tax revenues.

Although making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history, it was not until the 17th century that lotteries became a popular means of raising money for commercial promotions and other public uses. At that time, it was quite common in Europe to organize state-sponsored lotteries in which a pool of money was collected and distributed by chance.

In a lottery, each participant purchases a ticket in which he or she writes his or her name and an identification number. The ticket is then deposited with the lottery organizer for shuffling and selection in a drawing. The bettor may receive a numbered receipt to determine his or her status after the drawing is complete, or the organization may rely on computerized systems to record the identity of each ticket and the winning tickets.

Generally, prize amounts are determined by the total value of all tickets sold, with the total pool of prizes being reduced by expenses for promotion and taxes or other revenue. Some states impose restrictions on the value of any particular prize, and in most lotteries a single large prize is offered along with a series of smaller prizes.

Lotteries are a classic case of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview of the entire issue. This situation is often the result of a state’s political culture, with authority largely vested in executive and legislative branches that do not regularly consult each other and a general oversight function missing altogether. Moreover, these state-sponsored lotteries are at cross-purposes with the broader public interest because they promote gambling while simultaneously raising money for the government. This creates a question about whether the state should be in the business of promoting vices like gambling, especially when it comes with the added costs of addiction and poverty for some players.