Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is an enormously popular game that contributes billions to state coffers each year. Many people play for fun, while others think it offers a way out of poverty or a lack of opportunity. But the odds of winning are low, and a large percentage of players lose.

It is also a classic example of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with the authority to control lottery operations fragmented between legislatures, executive branches, and state agencies. The result is that the overall welfare of the public is taken into consideration only intermittently, if at all.

When lotteries first gained popularity, they were hailed as a painless form of taxation. The argument went that the money would be voluntarily spent by players in the hope of winning a prize that was not tied to specific uses, so taxpayers could get more bang for their buck without having to vote to increase taxes or cut other programs.

But studies have shown that this argument is largely a myth. Lottery revenues have not increased in proportion to states’ actual fiscal health, and the popularity of a lottery is more closely associated with its size than with its alleged benefits. Super-sized jackpots draw people in, especially when they are advertised on newscasts and websites. They can be especially lucrative for lotteries when the top prize is carried over to the next drawing, as is often the case. This reflects a basic human desire to win, as well as the fact that humans tend to be inherently optimistic and believe they are better than average.