Some Concerns About Lottery


Lottery is a traditional gambling game in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a prize. The prizes are usually cash or goods. In some cases, a portion of the proceeds are donated to good causes. In addition, the profits from lotteries are taxed. This makes lottery a form of gambling that is popular with many people. However, there are some concerns about lottery, including its regressive impact on lower income groups and the potential for compulsive gambling.

The first European public lotteries in the modern sense of the term were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. A record of a lottery in Ghent, dated 9 May 1445, shows the sale of 4,304 tickets with a total prize of 1737 florins (worth about US$170,000 today).

After World War II, state governments saw lotteries as an opportunity to expand a variety of social services without raising taxes on the middle class and working classes. These benefits helped states win broad support for the lottery. They also developed extensive specific constituencies—convenience store operators; lottery suppliers, who give large donations to political campaigns; teachers (in those states in which the proceeds are earmarked for education); state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue from lotteries; and, of course, the general public, who regularly play the games.

Lotteries have become extremely popular in the United States, especially since the advent of the Powerball jackpot in 1992. In 2010, sales exceeded $34 billion. In addition, the popularity of the lottery has increased in other parts of the world, such as Canada and Australia.

Despite these enormous gains, lottery critics continue to assert that the prizes offered by lotteries are trivial and that the profits from the game are excessive. They point to evidence that lottery advertisements often mispresent the odds of winning and inflate the value of the prize money (since most winners are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, inflation dramatically erodes the current value). They also point out that many of the people who play the lottery do so as an alternative to paying higher taxes or cutting government services.

But the argument against lotteries is flawed. A number of studies show that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not influence whether or when it adopts a lottery. Instead, the main factor influencing lottery adoption is the perception that it contributes to a particular state-wide public good, such as education. As long as the public continues to believe that the lottery promotes this important goal, it is likely to remain an important source of revenue for state governments. It is in the interest of all Americans that the lottery be conducted fairly and effectively. This requires the federal government to establish clear rules and regulations for the operation of lotteries. It also requires strong enforcement of those rules to prevent corruption and abuse.