Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling wherein people pay for the chance to win a large prize through a random drawing. Governments often operate lotteries to raise money for projects and public services. The lottery has a long history of use, including distributing prizes for military conscription and commercial promotions in which property is given away through a draw, as well as the casting of lots to determine fates and allocate land and other goods. Lotteries are generally considered a form of gambling, but there are exceptions such as those used to select members of the jury and for granting civil rights such as disability benefits.

Lottery has a powerful appeal for many people, partly because it combines the entertainment value of play with the prospect of monetary gain. The disutility of a monetary loss could be outweighed by the expected utility of the winnings for an individual, and that would make purchasing a ticket a rational decision.

Big jackpots drive sales and attract attention for the lottery, which makes it a profitable venture for state governments. The big winners become newsworthy and earn the games free publicity on websites and on TV, which helps sustain interest in the next draw. But the glitz of these super-sized jackpots obscures the fact that the odds are long, and that most of the winners will go broke in the short run.

Because the lottery is a business that relies on maximizing revenues, its advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend their money on tickets. This puts the lottery at cross-purposes with public policy goals that focus on minimizing problems like compulsive gambling and its regressive impact on lower-income groups.