The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement whereby a large number of prizes are distributed by chance to participants who pay a consideration, such as money or goods. Modern lotteries are usually organized to raise funds for some public purpose, such as a sporting event, charitable cause, or government project. Lotteries may also be used to promote certain products, such as cars or vacations. The term lottery is also used in a less restrictive sense to refer to any process whose outcome depends on chance, such as a coin toss or a roll of dice. The casting of lots for determining decisions and fates has a long history in human society. The first documented lotteries with prize money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with records from Bruges, Ghent and Utrecht referring to raising money for town walls and for the poor.

Most states now run a state-sponsored lottery. State-sanctioned lotteries differ in the methods used to sell tickets, draw winners and distribute prizes, but most operate on a similar model. The state sets a maximum ticket price, then divides the total amount of money available into a number of prizes — often in multiple categories — and offers those prizes to the general public for a small percentage of the total ticket sales. The lottery operator takes a larger percentage of the proceeds, and the state or local government gets the remainder.

The popularity of the lottery has given rise to an ugly underbelly: People who buy a ticket know that they are unlikely to win, but they hope that somehow, just maybe, it will be their lucky day. The rationale for doing so is that the entertainment value of the ticket will outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss.

While the public is aware of this, the advertising of lotteries tends to focus on exaggerated claims about the odds of winning and inflating the value of prizes (the money won by a winner typically is paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value). Critics also complain that the marketing focuses on making lottery participation feel like a civic duty, even for those who lose.

Lottery revenues often increase rapidly when they are introduced, then begin to level off and eventually decline. Consequently, the state must continually introduce new games to maintain or increase revenues.

The development of the state lottery is a classic example of policy making at the piecemeal, incremental level, with the result that no single authority has any overall overview or control. This type of policy-making has the additional disadvantage that it creates dependency on a source of revenue that the state cannot easily control, or stop altogether. A similar dynamic is evident in the growth of sports betting, which is another form of gambling. Yet despite its addictiveness, there is little evidence that it reduces crime or other social problems. A recent study found that it only increases the likelihood of gambling addiction.