Public Policy and the Lottery

The earliest lottery records are from the 15th century, when citizens in towns such as Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges ran them to raise money for town fortifications or poor relief. Modern state lotteries are much bigger, with dozens of games available online and on television. Only six states don’t have them, including Alabama and Utah, which have religious concerns; Mississippi and Nevada, which allow gambling and get a cut of the lottery’s profits without the extra cost of running their own lotteries; and New Hampshire, which started the modern lottery system in 1964.

A lottery is a process that dishes out something that is limited and in demand, such as kindergarten admission or an apartment in a subsidized housing complex, to people who pay to participate. The goal is to give a good or better chance of winning to as many people as possible by randomly selecting participants. The process is designed to distribute wealth fairly, even if the odds of success are very long.

The lottery is a classic example of public policy that is made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. As a result, the lottery has become a major industry that raises money for state governments—and that is often at cross-purposes with the general public welfare. Lottery advertising, for example, focuses on telling people that the game is fun and that they can win. But it ignores the fact that most people who play the lottery are not playing a game. They’re buying a desperate shot at something, however improbable, that may be their only way up.