Is the Lottery Beneficial to Society?

Is the Lottery Beneficial to Society?


Lottery, in its broadest sense, is a competition that involves paying to be entered into an unspecified future outcome-based event. It is a form of gambling, but it differs from casino games or sports betting because the prize money in lotteries does not derive solely from a player’s skill or effort. Instead, it is based entirely on chance. Almost every state has an official lottery. But it is not clear whether lotteries are beneficial to society.

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history (Nero loved his lotteries, for example) and is attested to in the Bible. Lotteries in their modern incarnation, however, are a relatively recent development. The first public lotteries, which distributed monetary prizes, took place in the fourteenth century and were typically run by towns for the purpose of raising funds for municipal repairs or charity.

In the United States, the first state-run lotteries began in the late nineteen-sixties. They came about at a time when state budgets were straining under the pressure of growing populations, inflation and war costs. For many states with generous social safety nets, balancing the budget would require either raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were extremely unpopular with voters.

States turned to the lottery as a way to raise needed revenue without provoking an angry public. The result was a phenomenal growth of state lotteries. By the end of the decade, thirteen states had lotteries.

Early lotteries were simple raffles in which a ticket preprinted with a number could be purchased for ten shillings, and the winner was determined by a drawing. Later, the games grew in complexity and added features such as multiple payoffs. But even as the games grew more sophisticated, they remained at their core a chance-based game where the odds of winning were based on a small percentage of all tickets sold.

The expansion of the lottery continued into the seventies and eighties as state governments became accustomed to the steady flow of new revenues. Lottery sales grew by an average of 20% per year. By 2003, according to the National Association of State Lotteries, the sale of tickets reached $70 billion in a single year.

As the popularity of lotteries grew, critics began to question whether they were good for society. They pointed to a number of problems, including the disproportionately low participation by poorer communities and the tendency of lotteries to promote gambling addiction among the young. They also complained that, because lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues, they do not take into account the general welfare of the public. They are also accused of having a blatantly commercial focus, with advertising that explicitly aims to convince people to spend their money on the games. But these are the types of complaints that are often leveled against any business, and they are certainly not unique to lotteries.