Problem Gambling and the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling where players pay a small sum to choose numbers or symbols that are randomly selected by machines. The more numbers or symbols match, the larger the prize. Many state governments have legalized this activity in order to raise funds for programs that would otherwise be taxed out of existence. While this strategy has helped some states, it has a downside, particularly for poorer people. Problem gamblers are also more likely to be targeted by these games. The rise of new lottery games has exacerbated these issues.

A lottery is a game of chance and skill that has been around for thousands of years. In the ancient world, lotteries were popular at dinner parties to distribute gifts that included expensive items such as fine dinnerware or jewelry. Lottery participants were expected to purchase one ticket per person at the party, and if their numbers were drawn, they could receive prizes of equal value to everyone else in attendance.

During the early American colonial period, lotteries were used to fund public works projects and even to give away land for sale. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to help finance his proposed road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Public lotteries eventually played a major role in financing the construction of several American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale and King’s College.

The modern era of state-run lotteries began in the immediate post-World War II period, when states were able to expand their array of services without especially burdening taxes on middle and working class people. In addition to providing revenue for government, these lotteries were seen as a way of generating goodwill with the people. They were viewed as “painless” revenue, and state legislators quickly came to depend on these funds.

As the reliance on lottery revenues increased, state governments began to adopt policies that were not in line with their anti-tax ideology. They enlarged the number of games, increased the size of prizes and added a variety of special games, such as scratch-off tickets, online gaming and other forms of entertainment. This has led to a situation where state officials are unable to manage the lottery, which has become a powerful and addictive force in their constituents’ lives.

State lotteries are a classic case of a piecemeal and incremental approach to policy making, with no overall vision or direction. Lottery officials are continually pressured to generate revenue, and the development of a comprehensive state gambling policy has not been an explicit priority. Consequently, the lottery is a source of funding that is controlled by multiple stakeholders who do not have the same level of authority or perspective. As a result, the lottery’s impact on social welfare is difficult to assess. Moreover, state officials are largely unaccountable to the general public. This makes it difficult to evaluate how the lottery is operating and how it might be improved.