Lottery Politics

Lotteries are games of chance where players choose a small set of numbers from a larger set and win prizes (typically cash) if their number is drawn. The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history in human societies, with references to lottery games in the Bible and in ancient Roman civil law. Lotteries have become a popular method of raising funds for public projects and services, and they are operated in many states and countries around the world.

In the United States, state governments hold the exclusive rights to run lotteries; they have a legal monopoly over their operations. They promote the games through extensive advertising that often targets specific groups of potential players, such as young people or women. Lottery critics charge that these advertising campaigns encourage gambling addiction and may sway vulnerable members of the population to spend money they cannot afford on a risky endeavor.

Because lottery profits are used for public purposes, it is difficult for state officials to reject the revenue as inappropriate for a government to pocket. This has led some politicians to use lotteries to generate funding for government programs without incurring the political cost of raising taxes. In an anti-tax era, this has proved an attractive strategy for many states.

The lottery has developed a broad base of supporters that includes convenience store operators (whose cashiers are the primary lotto vendors); lottery suppliers, who frequently contribute to state political campaigns; teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators, who rapidly become accustomed to the steady flow of “painless” gambling profits. In addition, the lottery has cultivated its own particular constituencies, such as those who play for large jackpots. The lottery’s popularity grew rapidly after New Hampshire began the modern era of state lotteries in 1964. The country’s obsession with unimaginable wealth, as represented by the large lottery jackpots of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, coincided with a sharp decline in financial security for working Americans: pensions eroded, property tax rates dropped, job security vanished, health-care costs rose, and many families struggled to survive.

Although lottery games have been associated with a variety of social problems, including gambling addiction and crime, most researchers agree that the impact is limited, especially when compared to the harm caused by other forms of gambling. Nonetheless, the growing prominence of state lotteries has raised important questions about whether and how governments should manage an activity from which they profit. The lottery’s proponents argue that since people are going to gamble anyway, the government should at least recoup its investment. This logic, however, runs at cross-purposes to broader ethical concerns about state-run lotteries.