Lottery Ethics and Public Policy


The lottery is a state-run gambling contest that promises prizes to players who buy tickets. It’s a common source of revenue for state governments, and its popularity with the public has led to some ethical concerns. Unlike taxes, which come with clear explanations of how they’re spent, lottery proceeds are not as transparent. And while the lion’s share of lottery funds is given away in prizes, retailers also earn a percentage of sales. These commissions can add up quickly, making lottery sales a significant source of state income.

Lotteries have long been popular with the general public, but it’s not always clear why. One reason is that they are seen as a way to raise money for a specific public purpose, such as education. This argument is particularly persuasive in times of economic stress, when the prospect of raising taxes or cutting public services can be a political hot potato. But studies show that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state’s government do not appear to have much effect on whether or when a lottery is adopted.

Historically, state governments have legislated a monopoly on lottery operations, establishing a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private company in return for a cut of the profits). Then they typically start with a modest number of relatively simple games and progressively expand the product line as revenues grow.

The expansion of lottery offerings has raised questions about how much control the state should have over how lottery proceeds are used. In addition to the ostensible purpose of educating children, many states have also earmarked lottery funds for public works projects such as roads, libraries and hospitals. But critics of the lottery argue that the public should have a say in how these funds are allocated.

In the United States, most state lotteries are based on traditional forms of a raffle. The public purchases tickets for a drawing that is held at a future date, usually weeks or months out. The majority of ticket sales are made by convenience stores, which are paid a commission on each sale. Retailers may also receive bonus payments if they meet certain sales criteria, such as selling high volumes of lottery products.

Lottery revenues have grown rapidly since New Hampshire introduced modern state lotteries in 1964, but they’ve begun to plateau. This has prompted the introduction of new games, including video poker and keno, to boost sales and keep revenues growing. But a major obstacle remains: People’s basic misunderstanding of how rare a chance it is to win the jackpot. Humans are good at developing an intuitive sense of risk and reward from their own experience, but that skill doesn’t translate very well to the enormous scope of a lottery. As a result, the public’s intuition about how rare a prize is likely to be can get out of sync with reality as prizes go up and down.