The Lottery and Its Critics


A lottery is a form of gambling in which a large number of tickets are sold and prizes are awarded according to the drawing of lots. The prize money may be a fixed sum of cash or goods, such as cars and computers, or it may be a percentage of the total ticket sales. Government officials have long been concerned about the ability of lotteries to produce massive profits from a limited amount of public funds, and they have therefore sought to control and regulate them. In the modern era, which began in 1964 with New Hampshire’s adoption of a state lottery, the development and operation of state lotteries has followed remarkably uniform patterns.

A large and growing number of states have adopted state lotteries, and their success has raised questions about the ability of government at all levels to manage an activity from which it profits. Especially in an anti-tax era, many state governments have become dependent on “painless” lottery revenues and face constant pressure to increase their share of the pie. In addition, state lottery officials are exposed to the pressures of convenience store operators (who sell the tickets), suppliers to the industry (heavy contributions by those suppliers to state political campaigns are reported regularly), teachers (in states where part of the proceeds is earmarked for education), and other state employees.

In an era of rising inequality and diminishing social mobility, the promise of instant riches is an attractive one for many people, and this is why so many Americans play the lottery. It is also true that a very small percentage of players win large sums, but the messages that lottery advertising conveys to the public are generally positive, implying that it’s OK to play because you can win big.

As with all forms of gambling, the lottery has its critics, most of whom have a deep-seated mistrust of any activity that seems to be based on luck and chance. In fact, a growing body of research has demonstrated the negative effects that the lottery can have on individuals, especially young people. The research demonstrates that lottery participation can have adverse psychological, educational, and health consequences for the participants.

In the case of the lottery, one of the most significant issues is that, by design, the advertised prizes are almost always much lower than the amount paid in by people hoping to strike it rich. This imbalance is a result of the way in which the lottery is established and managed. It’s a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall direction or overview. The result is that the resulting state lotteries are operating in an environment where the public’s welfare is only intermittently considered. The results are a lottery system that may well be contributing to the country’s growing problem with gambling addiction. And that’s a problem we can’t solve unless we start to understand it. — By John Sutter, Professor of History at Dartmouth College and the author of a book on gambling.