Public Policy and the Lottery

1. A gambling game in which tokens or pieces of paper with numbers written on them are sold, and a drawing is held for prizes. 2. Any scheme for the distribution of property, money, or other rewards, in which chances are determined by chance or fate: combat duty is considered a lottery. 3. A system of awarding public goods and services in which applications are submitted, and a selection is made by lot. 4. A competition in which the winnings are awarded to a few entrants or competitors.

In its early days, the lottery was a powerful tool for a wide range of public good projects, from helping to establish universities and towns to building bridges and canals. The early American colonies used lotteries to raise funds for the war against Britain, and the Continental Congress even voted to hold a national lottery to help finance the Revolution.

Despite the fact that the lottery is a form of gambling, it has been shown to have social benefits in lowering crime and poverty rates. It also plays an important role in promoting health and education, especially for lower-income families. Lottery revenues have proven to be a relatively painless source of public funding, and the fact that they are not dependent on the state’s general fiscal situation has been one of the key arguments in their favor.

However, lottery critics have focused on other issues as well, notably its regressive impact on poorer people and its potential to foster compulsive gamblers. These concerns have driven the evolution of state lotteries, and they also influence public policy decisions regarding their future.

For example, many state lotteries have followed a similar path in their development: The government legislates the lottery and creates a public corporation to run it; starts with a modest number of games; then, in order to increase revenue, begins to introduce new games. This approach is a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with each new game being subject to the same kinds of pressures that other forms of public spending are.

It is important to remember that the primary reason that people buy lottery tickets is for the hope that they might win. Those who play the lottery most often are people with little economic security, who don’t see many opportunities for self-sufficiency or growth. They are not, as critics claim, irrational gambling addicts, and they do know the odds of winning. They also have a certain amount of value for the few minutes or hours or days they spend dreaming about their future possibilities, even if those possibilities are irrational and mathematically impossible. This is the essence of the lottery. It is not a money machine, but it does offer a chance to change one’s circumstances and life’s direction. And for some, that is enough. – By John Podziennik, a Senior Fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. This article is adapted from his book, “The State of Lottery: How the Public Welfare Has Been Misallocated and Why We Need to Change It.” Copyright (c) 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.