Public Policy and the Lottery


The casting of lots has a long history in human society. It has been used to decide fates and to determine the rightful heir to property. It has also been used to raise money for public purposes. The first recorded public lotteries with prize money in the form of cash were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with towns attempting to raise funds to build walls or town fortifications and to help the poor.

Today, state lotteries have broad popular support and the most recent data indicate that more than 60% of adult Americans play at least once a year. State legislators have come to depend on them, and they have adopted a variety of strategies for promoting them and increasing their revenues.

Typically, a lottery consists of a pool of money and a set number of prizes that are awarded to winning tickets. A percentage of the total amount of money is paid out as prize money, and the rest of it goes to the promoters and other costs. Some states use a fixed prize structure, while others have a progressive prize structure. The prizes may be specified in advance or they may be determined at random. The progressive prize structure tends to be more lucrative for promoters, because it increases the size of the jackpot and encourages more people to buy tickets.

In addition to the progressive prize structure, some states allow players to choose their own numbers or combinations of numbers. This strategy increases the chances of winning, but also increases the risk that a ticket will be shared with another winner. This risk can be reduced by choosing a set of numbers that are less likely to be picked than other numbers. Many people choose a set of family birthdays, or other numbers that have a special significance to them. For example, a woman in 2016 won the Mega Millions with her mother’s and her own birthdays and the number seven.

A key reason why lottery advertising is so effective at generating revenue for states is that it appeals to irrational human impulses. In an age of inequality and limited social mobility, the allure of a large jackpot can be irresistible. The fact that jackpots are often displayed in oversized billboards accentuates their attractiveness.

Lotteries are a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal, with little or no overall framework. Decisions about how to run a lottery are often made by specialized interest groups, such as convenience store owners and suppliers (who make heavy contributions to political campaigns); teachers (in states in which a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for education); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional income. The result is that lotteries are often running at cross-purposes with the general public interest. This has led to serious problems for the poor and problem gamblers, as well as state coffers. A better way to raise money for public services would be through a fairer tax system, not an unregulated gambling industry.