Is the Lottery Good For Government?


A lottery is a procedure by which something, usually money, is distributed among a large group of people according to chance. Lotteries are often used to distribute limited resources such as housing units or kindergarten placements. They can also be used to distribute things such as sports draft picks or automobile license plates. Unlike other types of gambling, the prizes in lotteries are often not fixed in advance but are announced after the drawing has occurred. The word “lottery” may be derived from the Old Testament instruction that Moses should take a census of the people of Israel and then divide land by lot, or it may be a calque on Middle Dutch loterie, or even older Middle English lotterie, meaning “the action of drawing lots.”

Lottery is popular because it fulfills an inextricable human impulse: to try our luck in an attempt to get rich quick. The fact that winning a lottery requires only a small investment is the part of the story that is most appealing to most people. And the size of the prize, which is often advertised on billboards and other forms of advertising, adds to the appeal.

But a close examination of lottery data reveals that there is much more to the picture than an inextricable desire to gamble. For one thing, the players of lotteries are disproportionately lower-income and less educated. They are disproportionately male and nonwhite, and their playing tends to decline with age and with formal education. Furthermore, many people who play the lottery are not making a habit of doing so. A single purchase in a given year is all that most players do.

Moreover, despite the popularity of lotteries, they are not generally perceived as being very good for society. While the proceeds of the lotteries are often cited as funding a particular public good, studies have shown that this is not always the case. And the overall fiscal health of state governments seems to have little relationship to the popularity of lotteries.

Despite these drawbacks, there are some reasons for states to continue to operate lotteries. In addition to the revenue they generate, they serve as a useful way of reaching out to potential voters. But, as with any activity involving the distribution of wealth, there are questions to be asked about how the lottery operates and about whether it is appropriate for government. Some of these questions have to do with the problem of compulsive gamblers and the regressive effect on low-income groups, but others are more general and concern the legitimacy of promoting a type of gambling that can have negative effects on society. It may be time to ask whether the lottery is serving a useful social function and, if not, what alternative should be pursued?