The Lottery and Its Effects on Society


Lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of a prize. The practice dates back to ancient times, when the Old Testament instructed Moses to divide property among his people by lot; and Roman emperors held lotteries at their Saturnalian feasts as a popular form of entertainment. The lottery evolved into a state-regulated enterprise in the United States in the early 19th century, with states increasingly adopting it to raise revenue for public purposes. But despite their initial popularity, state lotteries now face serious questions about their effects on lower-income individuals and society in general.

Lotteries are based on gambling, which is inherently risky. Even the best state lotteries have a significant percentage of people who lose money, and most states suffer from an increase in problem gambling when they introduce a lottery. Lotteries also tend to attract higher-income individuals, which leads to social problems, including a higher incidence of alcohol abuse and other substance use disorders. Moreover, lotteries are run as businesses focused on maximizing revenues. They promote gambling and spend large amounts on advertising to achieve this objective. As such, they are at cross-purposes with the public interest.

Despite these concerns, state lotteries remain popular. In an era where the political system is dominated by anti-tax sentiment, many people believe that lotteries are a painless form of taxation. Consequently, state governments have become dependent on these revenue sources and the pressures to increase them are great.

The earliest state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles. Participants purchased tickets for a drawing at some future date, often weeks or months away. But innovations since the 1970s have radically changed the industry. Lotteries now offer instant games, with prizes ranging from 10s to 100s of dollars. To maintain and increase their popularity, lottery organizers must continually introduce new games. This has prompted intense lobbying by convenience store operators (the traditional vendors); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers, in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and the public at large.

Once a lottery is established, debate and criticism usually shifts from the general desirability of the activity to more specific features of its operations, such as the problem of compulsive gamblers and its regressive impact on lower-income groups. Unfortunately, few state officials have a comprehensive gambling policy or even a lottery policy and thus are unable to develop strategies to reduce these problems.

As a result, it is not surprising that state lotteries have not made substantial progress in reducing problem gambling and promoting healthy gaming habits. Rather than focus on these issues, lottery managers are likely to continue their efforts to promote the lottery as an attractive alternative to other forms of gambling. This may work for a time, but it will eventually create an unsustainable situation. Ultimately, the lottery must be reformed to ensure that its benefits are commensurate with the risks it poses.