The distribution of prizes based on the casting of lots has a long history (including several instances in the Bible) but lottery games as popular entertainments are more recent. The first recorded public lotteries were conducted in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and for helping the poor. In modern times, lotteries offer a wide variety of prizes from cash and goods to free tickets or even units in subsidized housing or kindergarten placements. The prize pool is determined by the total value of the tickets sold, the costs of the promotion, and any taxes or other revenues deducted.
The major argument used to promote state lotteries is that they provide a source of “painless” revenue that doesn’t require voters or politicians to increase taxes. It’s a compelling argument, and it’s particularly effective when states are under financial stress. But research shows that it isn’t a reliable predictor of whether or when a lottery will win broad public approval.
While there is some truth to this, it obscures a larger issue: The lottery’s popularity has very little to do with the objective fiscal condition of a state. It has everything to do with the public’s view of the purpose of the lottery and its role in promoting an image of a state as a well-run, responsible, socially minded organization.
Most of the time, when people buy a lottery ticket they’re doing so for fun. They want to win a big prize, but they also have this sense that they’re doing something worthwhile for their community or their state. And that’s a powerful message, especially in this day and age where the idea of civic duty is so important.
Consequently, the way that lottery officials market their product is to emphasize the fun factor of it all: The experience of buying a ticket, the novelty of scratching off a ticket, and the chance to see if your numbers come up. It’s an appealing story, but it masks the fact that the lottery is a very dangerous form of gambling.
In fact, studies show that most people who play the lottery lose money and many become addicted. This is a dangerous business, and state governments should take it very seriously. It’s time to put a stop to this practice and give state governments the resources they need to serve their citizens. This will require changing how state officials think about the lottery and its impact on public policy. Most states have no coherent “lottery policy,” and they have developed a dependency on lottery revenues that they can’t easily change. Until this changes, the lottery will continue to have a disproportionately negative effect on the lives of those who can least afford it. Fortunately, there are ways to address this problem. But it will take some work and a willingness to put public welfare above all else. That’s why it’s so critical that state legislators and governors take action.