How the Lottery is Run and Managed


Lottery, an event or game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize, is among the most popular forms of gambling. It is an activity with roots that are ancient, even predating Christianity, and has been practiced by a wide variety of people throughout history, including the Israelites when distributing land, the Romans for Saturnalian feast entertainments, and Chinese merchants who gave prizes to their customers in the form of keno slips.

In modern times, state lotteries are a common feature of American life. They are widely promoted as a “painless” source of revenue for states, and politicians often view them as a way to get tax money without having to ask voters to pay any more. But the way in which these lotteries are governed and managed creates some serious problems.

When state lotteries were first established, they were little more than traditional raffles in which the public bought tickets for a drawing that would take place weeks or months in the future. But as the demand for tickets grew, state officials expanded the lottery by adding new games and by increasing the number of prizes, with the goal of maintaining or growing revenues.

The result is that lottery profits have risen, but the overall public has become more dissatisfied with their experience with the games. State lawmakers, meanwhile, have come to see their dependence on lottery revenues as a fait accompli, and they have given the go-ahead for further expansion of the lottery without assessing whether this is in the long-term interest of the state.

Because lotteries are run as businesses with a primary concern for maximizing revenues, their advertising necessarily centers on persuading target groups to spend money on the games. This is at cross-purposes with the social welfare function of government, and it raises questions about the extent to which lottery promotions contribute to negative consequences for poor people or problem gamblers.

In addition, state lotteries are a classic case of policymaking that occurs piecemeal and incrementally, with the general public welfare only occasionally taken into account. Generally speaking, the bulk of lottery players and their revenues are drawn from middle-income neighborhoods, while they are disproportionately less common in low-income areas. The lottery also tends to draw play from men more than women, and from the young more than from the old. These factors, combined with the regressive nature of the prizes, mean that the lottery is a significant source of gambling income for people who cannot afford to participate in other forms of gambling. This is a significant and persistent problem. Unless it is addressed, the lottery could face serious long-term problems.