Public Support for Lotteries


A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. Lotteries are common in many countries, especially in the United States and Great Britain. They can be played for a variety of reasons, including to raise funds for public projects or to award scholarships. A lottery is a form of gambling because the winners are chosen by chance. However, there are some differences between a lottery and other forms of gambling.

Generally, state lotteries are operated by a government agency or public corporation and are regulated by law. The state establishes a lottery commission and legislation, delegates authority, selects and trains retail outlets to sell and redeem tickets, promotes the game, pays high-tier prizes to players, and oversees other aspects of the operation. In addition, the state has a legal responsibility to ensure that lottery proceeds are distributed according to the rules and regulations established by law.

State legislatures often adopt lotteries as a source of revenue for public purposes. They typically legislate a monopoly for the lottery, create a lottery commission and legislation to oversee its operations, and begin with a modest number of relatively simple games. Over time, however, a lottery grows in size and complexity. The state’s need for additional revenues leads it to introduce new games and increase the prize pool.

Lotteries have broad public support, particularly in times of financial stress. Lottery proponents argue that they provide a needed alternative to tax increases and cutbacks in public programs. But studies show that the objective fiscal condition of a state does not have much influence on whether or when lotteries are adopted.

In reality, the success of state lotteries is more the result of a complex network of political and economic interests than a single public policy initiative. The state lottery quickly develops extensive and specific constituencies: convenience store operators (the major vendors); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in those states where lotteries’ revenues are earmarked for education); state legislators; and so on.

While it is not always clear how public officials come to support the development of state lotteries, the question is a fundamental one: Should governments be in the business of promoting vice? And if so, what is the appropriate level of regulation?

Lotteries have a long history in the United States. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery during the American Revolution to raise funds for cannons for Philadelphia’s defense against the British. Thomas Jefferson tried to run a private lottery to alleviate his crushing debts. But it is the post-World War II era that saw the largest expansion in state lotteries. Lotteries were viewed as a way for states to increase services without onerous taxes on the middle class and working classes. That arrangement, however, started to collapse by the 1960s as inflation and the cost of a costly Vietnam War eroded state budgets.