Public Welfare and the Lottery


Millions of people play the lottery each week in the United States, contributing billions in revenue annually. Critics say the game promotes addictive gambling behavior, imposes a regressive tax on low-income groups and is prone to corruption. But most of all, they argue, the state is at cross-purposes with its duty to protect the public welfare when it depends on lotteries for revenue.

The casting of lots to decide matters of fate and fortune has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. More recently, however, the lottery has emerged as a common method for raising money for a variety of purposes. The lottery offers a wide range of prizes to participants who purchase tickets, with the grand prize often predetermined before the drawing. The remaining value is divided among winners.

State officials often defend the establishment of lotteries by arguing that they provide an inexpensive source of “painless” revenue, which does not require voters to approve additional taxes or cuts in current programs. Studies have shown, however, that this argument is largely deceptive. Lottery revenues are not as closely tied to a state’s overall fiscal condition as is commonly believed.

While the lottery may provide an affordable source of revenue, it also contributes to gambling addictions and is a major contributor to the growing number of Americans living in poverty. Its advertising, which focuses on the potential for huge jackpots and instant riches, also entices people who otherwise would not gamble to spend more than they can afford, creating an addiction cycle of increased gambling and debt. This is a particularly serious problem among those who have no real income, such as the homeless, who are often lured into betting by the false promise of a quick fix.

A number of states have criticized the way their lotteries operate, and a few have banned them altogether. Others have adapted the lottery model to raise funds for specific programs. But even when a state adopts the lottery, it is difficult to control its operation and keep its revenues in line with its obligation to protect the welfare of its residents. The reasons for this are numerous, but the most important are the state’s fragmented structure and a lack of a comprehensive public policy. State lotteries are run piecemeal, with authority shifted between the executive and legislative branches in a fashion that makes it hard to coordinate and limit a lottery’s evolution. It is also common for politicians to prioritize the need to increase lottery revenues over the state’s duty to protect its residents. Combined with the continuing growth of the industry and the general pressure to increase revenue, this puts lottery operators at risk of being at cross-purposes with the public’s interest.