The Lottery and Its Critics

Lottery is a gambling game in which participants pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a larger prize based on a random selection of numbers. The prize can be anything from money to a car or even a house. Lottery proceeds are typically collected by state governments and distributed as public funding for a broad range of projects and programs. State lotteries have generated significant controversy because critics argue that they promote addictive gambling behavior, constitute a major regressive tax on lower-income groups, and run at cross-purposes with the state’s responsibility to protect the welfare of its citizens.

Lotteries are governed by state law, and each lottery operates with its own set of rules and regulations. A typical state lottery commission establishes a monopoly for itself, licenses private firms to distribute tickets and operate machines, oversees the distribution of prizes, trains employees at convenience stores to use lottery terminals, and assists retailers in promoting and selling lotteries. States also set their own minimum and maximum jackpot sizes, and many prohibit players from buying tickets from companies that don’t have a lottery permit.

The modern era of state lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964, and the vast majority of states now offer them. Since then, the lotteries have generally followed remarkably similar patterns: state legislatures approve adoption; a public agency or corporation is established to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); it begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and — driven by the need to expand revenues — it progressively adds new types of games.

A key element in generating and maintaining lottery popularity is the ability to portray its proceeds as benefiting a specific public good, usually education. As Clotfelter and Cook observe, however, the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to be a significant factor in determining whether or when it adopts a lottery.

As with other forms of gambling, the lottery generates substantial criticism because of its inherent risky nature. Moreover, it is criticized for the way it encourages addictive gambling behavior and may negatively impact lower-income groups; for its tendency to create a perception that winning the lottery is a sign of merit; and for the fact that it is difficult to determine what percentage of the winnings actually go to the winner.

Lottery prize money is generated from ticket sales, and the higher the ticket sales, the larger the prize. Generally speaking, the odds of winning are quite low, and the vast majority of winners will wind up with a much smaller sum than they expected. In the United States, for example, federal taxes on lottery winnings average about 24 percent. Add in state and local taxes, and the total prize can shrink to less than half of the original jackpot. Some lottery prize funds are re-invested in subsequent drawings, but others are used to pay off the debts of state and local governments or to fund the military.