The Public Interest and the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for prizes. It has a long history, starting with the Old Testament instructions to Moses to divide land by lot, and the Roman emperors’ distribution of slaves and property during Saturnalian feasts. It is one of the world’s oldest and most widely used forms of gaming, with games being offered in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

State lotteries are generally perceived as a public good. They are promoted as an alternative to raising taxes or cutting public programs, and their popularity has been shown to increase in times of economic stress. This explains why they have been adopted in all states, even those with strong fiscal health.

Despite the prevailing popular perception that lottery players are wealthy individuals, research shows that the majority of people who play state-run lotteries live in middle-income neighborhoods. Further, the poor participate at levels disproportionately lower than their percentage of the population. As a result, state-run lotteries appear to be running at cross-purposes with the larger public interest.

While there is an inextricable human desire to gamble, state-run lotteries promote gambling by promoting large jackpots and encouraging the public to purchase multiple tickets in hopes of winning a prize. These advertising tactics are problematic because they give the appearance that it is possible to “win big” without actually working hard or being smart. In addition, lotteries are a form of public subsidy for private businesses that advertise themselves on billboards and television commercials.