Public Approval of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine fate has a long history in human societies, both for decision-making and divination. In modern times, lotteries are generally conducted by selling numbered tickets to bettors for the chance of winning a prize. The bettor writes his name or other identification on the ticket, which is then shuffled and possibly selected in the drawing. The prize money may be a cash sum or a combination of goods and services. Regardless of the type of lottery, it must be fair and based solely on chance.

When lotteries first emerged, public policy makers argued that they were an efficient way for state governments to provide essential social services without raising taxes on working people or increasing the burden on the wealthy. During the immediate post-World War II period, states were expanding their array of services and had large social safety nets to maintain.

But over time, public approval of the lottery has shifted to more specific features of the operation, including concerns about compulsive gamblers and alleged regressive effects on lower-income groups. The fact that lotteries are run as businesses, with a focus on maximizing revenues, has made the issue more acute.

State officials often have little control over the evolution of their lottery operations. Decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, and the overall effect of the industry is difficult to gauge. This is exacerbated by the fact that most state officials are not elected and do not have a broad overview of the entire industry.