Public Service and the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which tickets are sold and a prize is awarded to people who have the winning numbers. Lottery games are popular, and can be used to raise money for public charitable purposes. The term “lottery” is also used to describe any process whose outcome depends on chance, such as the stock market.

The practice of deciding fates and allocating prizes by drawing lots has a long history. The casting of lots to decide important matters has been known since biblical times, and the modern lottery was first introduced in the 18th century. Since then, state and private promoters have promoted a wide range of lottery products that offer an array of prizes from large cash amounts to household goods. Most lotteries are designed to maximize revenues and profits for the promoter. They typically offer a large jackpot prize, with a series of smaller prizes to draw participants. Revenues from these games often expand dramatically upon the introduction of a new game, but then level off and may even decline. In order to maintain or increase revenues, lotteries must continually introduce new games.

Lottery advertising is often deceptive, frequently presenting misleading information about the odds of winning the prize. It may also inflate the value of the money won. In the United States, for example, lottery winners have the option to choose between an annual payment or a lump sum; however, the time value of the cash is reduced by income taxes and inflation. In addition, many advertisements imply that lottery play is a socially acceptable activity for people who are not in financial need. This message confuses people and obscures the regressivity of the lottery industry.

In promoting the lottery, public officials must balance two competing goals: maximising revenues and maintaining integrity. The latter goal requires a rigorous system of checks and balances to prevent corruption and to ensure that the public interest is served. In this regard, a central issue is the allocation of state resources. Some of the revenue from lottery ticket sales is devoted to helping people overcome problems associated with gambling addiction; some is used for education and other social welfare needs. Other funds are used to pay for policing and other government services.

While there is no doubt that many states benefit from the revenue generated by their lottery, a key question is whether the promotion of this form of gambling is appropriate for the public service function of government. After all, it can lead to a vicious cycle in which the addict gambles more to try to recover his losses and becomes increasingly dependent on the game. This form of addiction can damage families, erode community spirit and lead to a downward spiral in the quality of life for those who do not win. Moreover, lotteries can undermine the ability of public agencies to provide other needed public services by placing an undue burden on poor and working class citizens.