Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for a prize. In the United States, state governments organize lotteries to raise money for various public purposes. Many people choose to purchase tickets and hope to win the grand prize, which is often a large sum of cash. In addition to generating funds for public purposes, some lotteries also support charitable causes.

Although casting lots to determine decisions and fates has a long history (including several instances in the Bible), the use of lotteries for material gain is more recent. In the 17th century, public lotteries were popular in the Netherlands, where citizens could purchase tickets for a variety of prizes including livestock, canal repairs, and military equipment. In the United States, Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise funds for cannons during the American Revolution.

In order to be considered a lottery, there must be a fixed price for a chance to win a prize. This is in contrast to a raffle, where the prize is awarded for free. In addition, the prize must be distributed to multiple winners. Lotteries are a common method of distributing charitable funds and have the advantage of being less expensive to administer than grants or scholarships.

Lotteries have gained broad public approval as a means to fund a variety of social programs. They are particularly attractive to citizens in times of economic distress because they offer a way to avoid tax increases or cuts in public spending. However, research has shown that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not seem to be a strong predictor of whether or when it adopts a lottery.

As a result, lotteries develop extensive and highly specific constituencies that may be difficult to alienate. These include convenience store owners, which are the primary vendors for the products; lottery suppliers, whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are often reported; teachers, in states where lottery revenue is earmarked for education; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional income.

The lottery is a classic example of public policy making, in which decisions are made incrementally and in the absence of a comprehensive overview of a subject. Consequently, few states have a coherent “lottery policy,” and the continuing evolution of lotteries is driven by the needs of specific constituencies rather than by considerations of the general public welfare. This approach is in stark contrast to the public policymaking process for most other forms of government activity.