Public Policy and the Lottery

A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold for a prize, the winnings of which are determined by random selection. Often used as an alternative to direct taxation for the purpose of raising funds for a public or charitable cause.

Lottery is a classic example of public policy made by fragmented and incremental steps, with the resulting system inevitably evolving in ways that have not been considered at the outset. It is also a case study in how state governments are often unable to manage the activities they profit from, and even more so when those profits come under constant pressure to increase.

Most states adopt lotteries largely on the premise that they are a source of “painless” revenue—that is, taxpayers are voluntarily spending their money in exchange for the prospect of receiving a prize of uncertain value. This argument is especially compelling when state government finances are in a precarious condition. But in fact, research has shown that lottery popularity does not relate to a state’s objective fiscal situation; instead, the success of a lottery depends on its ability to present itself as an attractive alternative to other methods of funding.

To assure that the process is fair, lottery systems usually use a computer-generated random sample of applicants to select winners. This method is more efficient than manually selecting winners from a large population set, and it yields results that are roughly comparable to those obtained by manual methods. The color coding in the graph above reflects the number of times each application row was awarded the column’s position.

The most common criticism of the lottery is that it tends to lure gamblers with deceptive advertising, particularly by presenting misleading information about the odds of winning (e.g., by inflating the average annual return on a lottery jackpot to 20 years, when inflation and taxes dramatically erode its current value); by implying that lottery playing is a fun activity, rather than a form of serious gambling; by promoting lottery games as a way for people to escape their problems; and by emphasizing the “big payoff” of winning, in spite of the likelihood that much of the prize will be spent on taxes.

Whether or not lottery critics agree with these arguments, there is little doubt that it is an industry with many flaws and abuses. The best approach to dealing with these issues is probably through education, and putting in place policies and regulations that are designed to discourage excessive play and promote responsible gaming. In addition, state lotteries can work with private entities to offer responsible gaming programs that are not confined to the casinos and racetracks. This is an important first step, and should be a priority for all lottery operators. The rest of the work will require a great deal of collaboration among states, private companies and individuals. This is a challenge worth undertaking, as the potential benefits to society are considerable.

Posted in: Gambling