Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated through a process that relies wholly on chance. Prizes may be cash, goods, or services. The lottery term also includes competitions that require entrants to pay to enter, but which are judged primarily on the basis of skill.

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is recorded in a variety of ancient documents, including the Bible. It was used in colonial-era America to raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects, and it is the underlying principle of most state lotteries.

Governments at every level have become dependent on lottery revenues, which provide a steady stream of funds without the need to raise taxes. As a result, there is constant pressure to expand the lottery, which often leads to the introduction of new games with lower prize amounts and even higher odds of winning, in order to maintain or increase revenues.

This story is a perfect example of how public policy is made in a world with fragmented authority, and how those policies are shaped by the continuing evolution of lottery operations. Those decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, and most officials in the legislative and executive branches have little overview. As a consequence, the development of state gambling policies is highly dependent on lottery sales, and it is very difficult to bring the general public welfare into the equation. In addition, the industry is rife with complaints about compulsive gambling and its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups.