Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a system for distributing prizes by chance. It is often considered a gambling game but is also used for charitable purposes and as a means of raising money for public benefit. The casting of lots for the determination of fates and possessions has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), but the distribution of prizes by lot is more recent and was probably first recorded in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders towns as a way to raise funds for town defenses or to assist the poor.

The state of Oregon, for example, has been in financial crisis over the past couple of decades and yet has a very popular lottery that is profitable to the state. The evolution of state lotteries is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight. Authority over the lottery is divided between the executive and legislative branches, and there is an inherent conflict between the desire to maximize gambling revenues and the need to protect citizens from problem gambling, to promote education, etc.

Most states today conduct lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes, including public works projects, education, health care, and other social welfare programs. In general, the prize for winning a lottery is a fixed amount of cash or goods. Alternatively, the prize may be a percentage of the total receipts. This format usually involves more risk for the organizer and can be difficult to sustain over time.

Regardless of the prize format, it is important that the lottery be conducted in accordance with state and federal laws. This is especially true with regard to advertising. The state must be able to monitor the quality of the advertisements and determine whether or not they violate gambling regulations. The state should also be able to regulate and enforce the terms of contracts between ticket sellers and prize sponsors.

Despite the popularity of lotteries, there are serious concerns about them. For one, the large portion of income generated by these enterprises is devoted to advertising. This can lead to misleading information about the odds of winning and inflating the prize value (since the money awarded in a lottery is generally paid in annual installments over 20 years, inflation and taxes dramatically erode the original value). In addition, as many people who play the lottery are unable to control their spending habits, they contribute billions in government receipts that could have gone toward savings for retirement or college tuition. This is a major source of concern among those who are opposed to lotteries.