Public Policy and the Lottery

In America, lottery games contribute billions to state coffers every year. Players buy a ticket, select numbers, or have machines randomly spit out groups of numbers and win prizes if they match those selected. While some play for fun, others believe the lottery is their only chance at a better life.

Lottery critics allege that the industry promotes addictive gambling behavior and imposes a regressive tax on lower-income households. In addition, they argue that state governments face a fundamental conflict between their desire to raise revenue and the need to protect public welfare. These criticisms, however, often miss the mark. Lottery policy decisions are typically made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall view or framework. The result is that government officials inherit policies and a dependence on revenues that they can influence only intermittently or in limited ways.

The term “lottery” derives from the Middle Dutch verb lotgen, which is related to the Old English noun lotte, meaning an allocation of property or privileges. The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were held in Flanders in the first half of the 15th century. By the late 16th century, the practice had spread to England and was well established by the early 17th century.

Lottery prizes are usually cash or goods. The monetary prize for the winner is calculated according to the number of matching numbers or symbols on a ticket, with a greater probability of winning for higher-valued prizes. In some cases, the prize money is divided among multiple winners.