Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is an institution that enlivens people’s hopes of striking it rich, and it provides a good source of revenue for state governments. It also is a popular way to fund education, senior support programs, construction projects and more. While lottery participation is widespread, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Some critics allege that the lottery promotes addictive gambling, is a major regressive tax on low-income groups and leads to other abuses. Others argue that a state’s desire to raise revenues runs at cross purposes with its duty to protect the public welfare.

Government-run lotteries are found on every inhabited continent and have existed for thousands of years. In the United States, lotteries started in 1776, with Benjamin Franklin raising funds for cannons in the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson sponsoring a lottery to relieve his debts. The popularity of the game exploded in the 1800s, and lotteries are now found in most states.

Most of the money outside your winnings goes back to participating states, which have complete control over how to spend it. Many use it for educational purposes, while others invest it in state infrastructure or put it in the general fund to address budget shortfalls, roadwork, bridgework and police force growth. Some even have dedicated lotteries for senior citizens or the environment.

A lottery is a classic example of public policy being developed piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. Moreover, the authority over the lottery is fragmented, and it’s difficult for public officials to make decisions that take into account the overall interests of the state.

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