Lottery Controversies


The practice of distributing property and other assets by lot is as old as human history. The Bible records that the Lord instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide the land among its inhabitants, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and other items during Saturnalian feasts. Even today, dinner party entertainment in many places includes a lottery-like game called apophoreta where guests have the opportunity to win prizes during the course of the evening by selecting pieces of wood with symbols on them.

State-sponsored lotteries have been around for centuries. They have varying degrees of popularity, but they are generally well received by the general public, especially when the proceeds are seen as being directed to a specific, desired public good such as education. Even when the actual fiscal circumstances of a state are robust, lotteries often receive broad public support, suggesting that there is an inextricable and perhaps irreversible social demand for them.

Regardless of the overall public approval, there are a number of issues that plague lottery operations, including the problem of compulsive gambling and its alleged regressive impact on low-income groups. These concerns are the focus of the controversies that surround state lotteries.

In the first place, it is important to note that, in fact, people who play lotteries do not necessarily have a good understanding of their odds of winning. As with any other form of gambling, the chances of winning are dependent on a combination of chance and skill. Some people who gamble are more skilled than others, and as a result, they will have a better chance of winning.

Aside from this, it is also important to remember that the vast majority of lottery participants are not rich. Rather, the bulk of players and the vast majority of lottery revenues are concentrated in middle-income neighborhoods. Moreover, as a study in the 1970s concluded (although Clotfelter and Cook argued that it was not statistically significant), the poor participate in lottery games at far lower rates than their percentage of the population, with the exception of scratch-off tickets.

Lottery advertisements are frequently deceptive, with messages that exaggerate the odds of winning and misrepresent the value of the prize money, which is often paid in annual installments over a period of 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding its current value. They also imply that the lottery is a safe and secure way to invest one’s money, which it is not.

Despite these concerns, the state lottery is likely to continue its expansion. The modern era of the lottery began in New Hampshire in 1964, and since then, nearly every state has followed suit. Moreover, the industry’s expansion has been fueled by increasing demands for revenue. In the future, we can expect more states to adopt and regulate lottery-like activities, and the competition for lottery revenues will intensify. Consequently, it is essential to understand the dynamics of this rapidly growing industry in order to develop sound public policy regarding its future.