Is the Lottery a Good Thing?


Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. People spend upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year, and state officials promote the games as a way to raise revenue without onerous taxes. But that message obscures the larger costs of lottery revenue, which are borne by working families who lose their money on those tickets.

The concept behind a lottery is to randomly assign something of limited supply to a group of people, allowing them to compete for it. The prizes can be anything from units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a public school. But the most common lotteries are those that award large cash prizes to a small number of winners.

Most states have a state-run monopoly for their lottery, and they usually set up a separate state agency or public corporation to run it. They typically start operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, and then, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand their offerings with new games and more aggressive promotion, particularly through advertising.

State officials also argue that the lottery is a form of “painless” revenue, in which the public voluntarily spending their own money provides funds for the benefit of a particular public good, such as education. But research shows that this argument is flawed, since lottery approval has little to do with the objective fiscal condition of a state government.