Public Policy and the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine ownership or rights has a long record in human history. The first public lottery to distribute prize money is recorded from the reign of Augustus Caesar for municipal repairs in Rome and was a popular source of funding in colonial Virginia.

State lotteries have become a staple of American life, with more than 90 percent of Americans living in states that offer them. The idea is that a few dollars spent on lottery tickets can yield substantial benefits to the winner, while at the same time providing the government with an easy way to raise funds.

While many people see the lottery as a fun pastime and a way to fantasize about a big payout, critics argue that it is little more than an exploitative tax on the poor. Studies show that those with low incomes spend a disproportionate share of their household budgets on tickets, and that they are targeted aggressively by lottery advertising.

When state lotteries were introduced in the 1960s, they were sold to the public as a simple way to raise tens of millions of dollars for schools and other public projects. But they may have come at too high a price, with states becoming reliant on unpredictable gambling revenues and sacrificing other vital services in the process. Lotteries have also been criticized for encouraging illegal gambling, promoting gambling addiction and skewing the odds against the average player. They are at the crossroads of public policy, and it is important to understand the broader implications of this type of state revenue generation.