The Ubiquity of Lottery

Lottery is a popular and widespread activity in the United States, contributing billions annually to state coffers. While some players play purely for entertainment, others believe that winning the lottery is their only hope of climbing out of poverty. But the odds of winning are incredibly low, so what is it about this activity that keeps so many people playing?

Almost universally, states adopt lotteries to raise money for public goods. The main argument for them is that they are a form of “painless” revenue: voters demand state spending, politicians look at lotteries as a way to get the taxpayers to spend their money in exchange for something of value (whether it be units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a prestigious public school).

Since New Hampshire began the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, virtually every state has adopted one; the arguments for and against them have remarkably similar characteristics. Each state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the lottery’s offerings and complexity.

The ubiquity of lottery play in the United States is largely a result of its wide appeal as a form of entertainment and its ability to stimulate consumer spending. According to studies by economists and sociologists, more than half of all American adults purchase a ticket at least once a year. The player base is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male.

Although there is an inextricable human impulse to gamble, critics argue that much of the success of lotteries is a result of deceptive advertising, including misrepresenting the odds of winning a prize (lottery jackpots are commonly paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the current value); promoting the appearance of large prizes to lure consumers; and using high-profile public figures to promote the lottery.

Once a lottery is established, it develops extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who serve as the usual vendors for the games); suppliers to the industry (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by suppliers are frequently reported); teachers, in states where some of the proceeds are earmarked for education; and, in those states where the lottery is a significant contributor to state budgets, legislators and governors who come to rely on its steady flow of funds. These and other issues stoke continuing debates about the desirability of lottery operations.