Public Benefits of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which participants pay for a ticket and win prizes by matching numbers or symbols. In the United States, state-run lotteries are a common source of revenue for public projects. Prizes may be cash, goods, services, or even homes. The casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long history, but the lottery as a means of raising funds is relatively recent in human history. It was first recorded in 1466, when a lottery distributed money for municipal repairs in Bruges, Belgium.

The modern state lotteries developed in the 1960s, after New Hampshire established one and inspired several other states to follow suit. The state lotteries are monopolies that sell tickets only through official channels. As a result, they are incentivized to produce high sales volumes through targeted marketing and promotions. Retailers also participate in the marketing efforts through cooperative merchandising programs and by providing demographic data to lottery officials for promotional purposes.

Lottery advertising is particularly effective at targeting the low income, elderly, and single-parent households. These groups are more likely to be frequent lottery players. In addition, many people have an inextricable attachment to the idea of winning big. Lottery ads emphasize the large prizes and promise instant riches. These messages appeal to a basic human impulse, and their effectiveness is further enhanced by the fact that lotteries are heavily advertised on highway billboards.

State lotteries have been successful in establishing themselves as a powerful force within the broader gambling industry, and in gaining government endorsements. Their success has, however, created a number of problems. The main problem is that state lottery officials do not have a coherent policy on gambling. Policy decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, with the result that the broader context of public welfare is only intermittently considered.

As the lotteries grow, they develop a broad base of very specific constituencies, such as convenience store operators (who receive substantial discounts on ticket purchases); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to lottery suppliers to support political campaigns are reported); teachers (in states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue.

The state lotteries have developed extensive marketing and merchandising capabilities to attract and retain customers. They use direct mail and email to promote games, as well as television and radio commercials and internet promotions. In addition, state lotteries operate online gaming sites, where they offer casino-style games and allow players to purchase tickets from home.

The profits from state lotteries are used exclusively for government operations. The states allocate their profits in a variety of ways, with education receiving the largest share. As of June 2006, the total allocation to education was $234.1 billion. The rest is shared among the other state agencies and the national lottery fund. Despite the enormous amount of money that is raised, the lottery remains a controversial public policy issue.