The Popularity of the Lottery

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, including multiple instances in the Bible. The lottery, which allows people to purchase a chance at a prize by paying money, is more recent. It was first introduced in colonial America to finance a variety of projects, including paving streets and building wharves. Lotteries were also used to fund the founding of many of the country’s most prestigious universities. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

The modern state-sponsored lottery operates much like a game of skill. Its players can improve their odds of winning by purchasing more tickets and participating in more drawings. They can also find out how to win by studying the results of previous draws. However, a winning ticket is still just a matter of luck.

Several factors drive lottery popularity, including the perception that playing is a harmless form of gambling and that the money is used to benefit the state. But that argument is flawed in several ways, according to a recent paper by Clotfelter and Cook. For one, the public’s positive attitude toward lotteries is unrelated to a state’s actual financial situation: Lottery revenue often peaks when states are experiencing fiscal stress.

Lotteries also enjoy broad popular support because the prize amounts are large enough to appeal to the public’s desire for wealth. This can be particularly true when the jackpots reach apparently newsworthy levels, earning the lottery free publicity on websites and in newscasts.

Another factor is that people believe their lives would improve if they won the lottery. This is a pernicious message that is contrary to the biblical instruction against covetousness. It also gives the lie to the claim that “all we have is God’s” (Ecclesiastes 6:8). The truth is that most of the problems in life are not fixable by a windfall, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to win.

For some people, the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits of playing a lottery are sufficiently high to outweigh the expected disutility of losing money. However, for the majority of people who participate in state-sponsored lotteries, that is not the case.

As lottery revenues continue to increase, many states are expanding their offerings by adding games like keno and video poker and increasing promotional efforts, such as through television and radio commercials. This trend is likely to continue. But, as the industry grows, it becomes more difficult to balance the demand for more games with concerns about regressivity and other social and economic impacts of the lottery. Ultimately, these issues will likely be settled in courtrooms and legislatures across the nation. The question is not whether to hold a lottery, but how and to what extent. The answer to that question will have far-reaching consequences for American society. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post and has been reprinted with permission from the author.