How Governments Promote the Lottery


The casting of lots for decisions and fates is a practice with a long record in human history. Lottery, on the other hand, is a modern invention that raises money by selling tickets for a chance to win a prize – typically cash. Governments promote lotteries as a form of “painless” revenue, because players choose to spend their money on the tickets voluntarily (as opposed to being taxed). Lotteries have been used to fund many public projects, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia), and to finance a battery of guns for the Continental Congress during the American Revolution.

Because lottery officials operate as a business, with an interest in maximizing revenues, they must focus their advertising on persuading people to spend their money on the tickets. This promotional message, however, obscures the regressive nature of the games and distracts from how much gambling drains incomes from lower-income families.

Another way that governments promote the lottery is to argue that it allows states to expand their services without onerous taxes on the middle class or working classes. This argument is most effective during times of economic stress, when the public worries that the state will have to cut back on important services. But studies have shown that the actual fiscal condition of a state does not appear to be a significant factor in lottery popularity. Instead, public approval of the lottery appears to be driven primarily by whether or not it is perceived to benefit a particular public good.

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