The Pros and Cons of a Lottery


A lottery is a scheme for raising money by selling chances to share in the distribution of prizes, the resulting winners being selected by chance. Lotteries are often run by governments, although they may be privately sponsored. There are a wide variety of types and sizes of lotteries, from small town or city events to state-wide draws that offer large cash prizes. Despite their widespread popularity, lottery schemes are subject to a variety of criticisms. These range from complaints about the number of compulsive gamblers to concerns about their regressive impact on lower-income groups.

The idea of distributing property or other goods by lot dates back to antiquity. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of the people of Israel and divide their land by lot; later Roman emperors used lotteries for giving away property and slaves during Saturnalian celebrations. The first European public lotteries resembling modern ones appeared in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders, with towns seeking funds to fortify their defenses and help the poor. Lotteries were introduced to the United States in the 17th century by British colonists, and they soon became popular. In the 18th and 19th centuries, states authorized and licensed lotteries to raise money for a variety of public purposes, including education, road construction, and bridge and canal repairs.

As the popularity of lotteries grew, it became increasingly common to promote them by advertising in newspapers and on television and radio. By the early 1970s, lotteries were a major source of revenue for many local governments and for federal programs. Although critics point to the prevalence of affluent winners and the high operating costs of some lotteries, state legislatures continue to authorize lotteries to attract new players and generate revenues.

Those who oppose the legalization of lotteries frequently argue that they divert resources from other public needs, but studies have shown that the amount of money raised by a lottery is not necessarily linked to a state government’s actual fiscal health. In fact, as Clotfelter and Cook note, lotteries have been approved by a majority of voters even when the state government is in sound financial condition.

Lotteries usually rely on an extensive network of specific constituencies to build and maintain their support, including convenience store operators (the principal vendors of tickets); lotteries’ suppliers (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in states where lotteries raise funds for schools); and, of course, lottery players themselves. These are largely middle-class and suburban residents, with less participation among the elderly or low-income members of the population. This pattern has become a key factor in the longevity of state lotteries, and it helps explain why the practice has received broad support from citizens across the ideological spectrum. It also highlights the difficulty of imposing a ban on lotteries.