The Public Interest and the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to the holders of the numbers drawn at random. A lottery is often run as a means of raising money for public or charitable purposes. The term is also used more generally to refer to any event or enterprise whose outcome depends on chance, especially one that is viewed as addictive or harmful.

When it comes to lotteries, the issue isn’t just that they are addictive or harmful; it’s that state governments, in their desire to maximize revenues, seem to be running them at cross-purposes with the public interest. A typical message in state advertising is that winning the lottery is good, because it raises money for a specific public benefit, such as education.

The problem is that this kind of message, and the general notion that winning the lottery is a great way to help out the kids, only reinforces the idea that gambling is an inevitable part of life. It creates a pervasive sense of hopelessness, which makes people feel that the only way out is to try to win the lottery.

In addition, studies show that the bulk of lottery players and ticket sales come from middle-income neighborhoods, while lower-income neighborhoods do not participate at a level even close to their proportion of the population. As a result, the overall effect of state lotteries is to skew public spending and taxation in ways that are counterproductive to the goals of public policy.