Does the Lottery Promote Gambling?


The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America. Its advocates argue that it is a legitimate way for state governments to raise revenue without onerous tax increases or cuts in public programs. However, the popularity of the lottery varies from state to state and reflects both the degree to which it is perceived to benefit the public and the state government’s actual fiscal situation. The lottery has also generated serious concerns about the way it promotes gambling, promoting a particular meritocratic belief that everyone will be rich someday and fostering addiction to the activity. In addition, the lottery has contributed to regressive state budgets and may be contributing to problems such as poor people becoming addicted to the game and problem gamblers spending large amounts of their income on tickets.

The casting of lots to decide fortunes and property distribution has a long history in human society, dating back to biblical times. The practice has been used to distribute land and slaves, as well as to determine the order of a religious service. Privately organized lotteries began to become more common in England and the United States as a way for businesses to sell products or properties for more money than would be possible by regular sales. Benjamin Franklin tried to hold a lottery to raise funds for the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson attempted to organize a lottery to alleviate his crushing debts.

When states adopted lotteries, they generally legislated a monopoly for themselves and a state agency to run it; began operations with a small number of relatively simple games; and then, under pressure to increase revenues, have expanded the lottery in both size and complexity with the addition of new games. The resulting increase in the total pool of prizes, after profits for the promoter and taxes or other revenues are deducted, has often been accompanied by a rise in advertising costs.

Lottery advertising has tended to emphasize the big prize and to present odds in terms of how unlikely it is that someone will win. This emphasis is important to the success of the lottery, but it obscures a fundamental question: is it right for the state government to promote a form of gambling?

Ultimately, the success of a lottery is determined by its ability to attract large numbers of participants, many of whom will spend a significant portion of their income on tickets. This is a major challenge for any lottery, and it is particularly acute in this era of anti-tax fervor, when there is strong pressure to boost lottery revenues.

Among the tactics for attracting players are to promote super-sized jackpots, which can generate considerable free publicity on news sites and on television. The odds of winning the top prize are very low, however, and a wise lottery strategy is to purchase multiple tickets in order to have a reasonable chance of winning. Some strategies include choosing random numbers rather than those associated with a special event or date, and to avoid playing numbers that end in the same group.