Does the State Have a Role in Promoting the Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winner of a prize. It is a form of gambling, and there are some social costs to its use, including the fact that it encourages poor people to spend their money on tickets. The state should not promote it, or at least not in a way that risks encouraging problem gambling.

People in the United States spent upward of $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is worth asking whether the state has a role in promoting gambling, and what those benefits might be in terms of the state’s broader financial health.

Lotteries are a classic case of a public policy that evolves piecemeal, with little oversight or coordination. Once a state adopts one, it develops extensive and specific constituencies that are highly dependent on the revenues it brings in: convenience store operators (who buy the tickets); suppliers of the products used for the lottery; teachers in states where a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for education; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue that comes with a lottery.

In the end, the state is not really running a lottery—it’s running a business. The primary goal is to maximize profits by convincing as many people as possible to spend their money on tickets, which is exactly what state officials are doing in every advertisement. The result, critics argue, is that the state runs a business at cross-purposes with the public interest.

Lottery proceeds are often earmarked to benefit particular groups of the population, such as education, the disabled, or veterans. This helps to secure broad public support for the enterprise, and it is particularly effective in times of fiscal stress. Yet studies show that the popularity of lotteries is not necessarily tied to a state’s overall financial health.

Critics also point to the way that lottery advertising commonly presents misleading information, such as displaying the total value of a jackpot prize in a way that obscures the fact that it will be paid out in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding its current value; inflating the percentage of ticket sales that go toward the prize fund; and so on.

Finally, there’s the fact that lotteries tend to draw players from middle-income neighborhoods and away from low-income ones. This may have something to do with the fact that a lottery’s prize offerings are generally more palatable to middle-class tastes than those of low-income residents. But it is also likely a function of the way that state governments have structured their lotteries. New Hampshire began the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, and states have followed its lead largely in accordance with its model.