Is the Lottery a Good Idea?


The lottery is a game of chance where people pay a small amount of money, select a set of numbers or symbols, and hope that those symbols match those randomly drawn by machines. Prizes are then awarded to those who correctly select the winning combination. Various types of lotteries exist, ranging from keno to the more familiar state-sponsored variety. The latter typically involves a drawing of numbers for a prize, such as a new car or a house. In the United States, people spend over $80 billion a year on the lottery. But is it a good idea?

The idea of making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long history, going back to the days when Rome used lotteries for municipal repairs. More recently, a number of states have adopted lotteries as a source of public funds.

In the past, lotteries were primarily traditional raffles, with people purchasing tickets for a drawing to be held at some future time. But innovations in the 1970s introduced a new type of lottery, called a “instant” lottery, that offered much lower prizes, but with far higher odds, on the order of 1 in 4. These instant games were especially popular with younger players, and they helped to sustain the revenues of state lotteries even during times when public spending was constrained.

A key reason for the success of state lotteries has been that the proceeds are earmarked to benefit a specific public program, such as education. This argument has been particularly effective in times of economic stress, when it is difficult to justify tax increases or cuts to public services. However, research has found that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to influence the extent to which its residents support the adoption of a state lottery.

Another major selling point for lotteries has been the message that they are a “painless” source of revenue. Since lottery funds are a form of voluntary taxation, they are considered by voters and politicians to be an acceptable substitute for raising taxes. This is a flawed argument. It fails to take into account the fact that most lottery winners are not only poor, but also likely to spend most of their winnings.

Finally, a final problem with state lotteries is that they are highly addictive. People keep buying tickets, even when the chances of winning are slim to none. They feel that they are completing their civic duty by playing the lottery, because they know that some of the ticket proceeds will go to a public good. This is not the kind of socially responsible behavior that we should encourage. Instead, we should be focusing on developing alternatives to gambling, such as a financial lottery that awards units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a high-quality public school. Then, Americans can use the money they now spend on the lottery to build their emergency savings or pay down credit card debt.