The Politics of the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of prizes. It is a popular way of raising funds for public projects, and it can also be used to award educational scholarships or other special awards. The practice dates back centuries, and the drawing of lots to decide ownership or other rights is recorded in many ancient documents, including the Bible.

In the immediate post-World War II period, state governments introduced lotteries to raise money for various social services and other projects without raising taxes. In the early days, lotteries flourished in Northeastern states with large populations that are accustomed to gambling and with social safety nets that could be expanded with new money.

These governments have a strong incentive to promote their lotteries as an especially virtuous activity, as the proceeds are earmarked for a particular good or public service, such as education. But this message obscures the regressive nature of lotteries, which benefit rich people more than poor ones.

A key problem with lotteries is that they depend on chance to win and retain public support. As a result, they become politically vulnerable and subject to pressures to increase their revenues. In this context, they tend to become dependent on a specific group of people: convenience store operators (the usual vendors for lotteries); suppliers to the industry (heavy contributions by these firms to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which lottery profits are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly get accustomed to the extra revenue). These groups all have a stake in making the lottery appear legitimate and virtuous, but their interests do not always align.