Public Benefits of Lottery

Lottery is a means for states to raise money for a variety of public purposes. It is an example of what economists call “a hidden tax,” in that people who play the lottery contribute to public expenditures without any visible exchange of goods or services. Lottery profits are often spent on government programs that are popular with voters, such as education and social welfare. But critics charge that much lottery advertising is deceptive, presenting misleading information about the odds of winning (lotto jackpot prizes are usually paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the current value); inflating the prize amount (lotto tickets sell for a fraction of the prize amount); and portraying the lottery as an effective way to finance civic projects (it has not been proved to be).

A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine ownership or other rights. The drawing of lots is recorded in many ancient documents, and the practice became widespread in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The lottery has since become a common method of awarding military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and jury selection. The lottery is also the principal mechanism by which many state governments impose taxes, and some private organizations use it to distribute merchandise or cash prizes.

In the United States, the vast majority of state lotteries are monopolies, with no competition from other companies or private lotteries. These monopolies do not allow the sale of tickets outside their territory, and they collect all proceeds to fund government programs. A few state governments allow private lotteries, but most do not. The American Lottery Association reports that in 2004 approximately ninety percent of adults living in the United States were located in a state that operated a lottery.

The popularity of lotteries has a great deal to do with the perception that they benefit a specific public good, such as education. But as studies by Clotfelter and Cook have shown, the objective fiscal circumstances of a state have little bearing on its decision to adopt or continue a lottery. Lottery officials inherit policies and a dependency on revenues that they can change only incrementally, with little overall guidance from the executive or legislative branches.

Lotteries are popular among certain groups of people, particularly those who consider themselves to be “gamblers.” Men play more frequently than women; blacks and Hispanics play at higher rates than whites; and those with a high school or college education play more often than those without such an education. However, the poor play lotteries at levels far below their percentage of the population as a whole. The number of players tends to increase with income, but only to a point. Then the numbers start to drop off. This is because the odds of winning are lower for those who play a higher number of entries.