Should Governments Promote the Lottery?


The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which people pay to play for a chance to win prizes. Prizes may be money, goods, or services. The practice of awarding prizes by lot is ancient. It is mentioned in the Bible, where Moses is instructed to divide land by lottery, and it was used by Roman emperors to give away property and slaves. Modern governments have adopted lotteries to raise funds for public projects, and they are popular with many Americans.

Lottery advertising typically focuses on two messages. First, it promotes the entertainment value of winning. Second, it tries to convince people that the odds of winning are low enough to make playing worth the risk. The logic here is that the expected utility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the expected utility of the non-monetary gains. So, for a given person in a particular situation, the purchase of a ticket is a rational choice.

But this premise ignores a major problem: The probability of winning is very, very low. In fact, the chances of anyone in a given population winning the jackpot are less than one in a million. And, because the lottery is regressive—it takes more of a share of income from poorer communities than richer ones—the odds are even lower for the very poor.

In addition, the lottery is an addictive activity and can lead to problem gambling. So, it is important to consider whether or not promoting it as an entertaining pastime and a way to build wealth is appropriate for the state. The question is especially critical for states whose governments are facing budget challenges. Despite the fact that research shows that lotteries are not associated with states’ actual fiscal health, they continue to enjoy broad public support.

The popularity of the lottery is often attributed to the belief that proceeds from the games will be directed toward a particular public good, such as education. This argument is appealing to people who want to reduce taxes or cut spending on social programs. But studies have shown that lottery revenues do not correlate with the overall financial health of a state, and they increase even during periods of economic stress.

Moreover, state lotteries tend to target the lowest-income communities with advertising and marketing campaigns that encourage them to believe that winning the lottery is a quick way to become wealthy. This leads those Americans to spend a larger share of their budgets on lottery tickets, which can have long-term negative effects for them and their families. The result is that poorer Americans are falling further into debt by chasing after an impossible dream. This is a serious problem and it is time to address it.