The Problems of the Lottery


The lottery is a major source of revenue for many states. It is a popular way to raise money for education, infrastructure, and even social welfare programs. But it is not without its problems. For one, it is difficult to assess its costs and benefits in a meaningful way. The costs of lotteries are largely hidden and often lumped together with other gambling expenses, making it hard to compare the relative benefits of different types of state lotteries. Furthermore, it is not clear how much of the lottery’s money actually goes to its stated purposes — and how meaningful those benefits are. The lottery also may promote gambling habits and contribute to other types of harmful behavior.

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random to determine the winner or winners. The origins of the lottery are ancient. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by lottery. In colonial America, lotteries played an important role in the financing of both private and public ventures. Among the public projects financed by lotteries were canals, roads, libraries, churches, colleges, and schools. Lotteries were especially popular during the French and Indian Wars.

There are many kinds of lotteries, including those that award scholarships and prizes for academic achievement and athletic ability, as well as those in which a number is drawn to win a prize or unit in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placement at a public school. There are also state-sponsored lotteries that award large cash prizes. The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or destiny. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

Despite their controversial nature, state-sponsored lotteries are an integral part of the American culture. People spend upward of $100 billion on lottery tickets each year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the United States. State government officials promote the lottery as a responsible way to raise revenue, and it has become an essential component of many state budgets. But just how much of that revenue is actually used to save children or to fund other public needs deserves closer scrutiny.

Critics charge that lottery advertising is deceptive and contains misleading information, including presenting the odds of winning as greater than they actually are and inflating the value of money won (lotto jackpots are paid out in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current values). Lottery advertising also tends to appeal to certain demographic groups more than others: men play more than women; blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; and the young and the old play less than those in the middle age ranges. In addition, research has shown that income alone does not explain differences in lottery playing patterns: other factors such as religious beliefs and levels of formal education do make a difference.