Public Policy and the Lottery

The word lottery means “fate” or “luck.” It is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn and people who have the lucky numbers win prizes. Modern lotteries include the selection of members of a jury by random procedure, and commercial promotions in which property is given away. The casting of lots for important decisions and fates is recorded in the Bible. The practice is also evident in medieval Europe, where the Casting of Lots was used to determine taxes and punishments. It was later replaced by voting by secret ballot.

Modern state-sanctioned lotteries are a type of public service, intended to generate funds for public projects, such as roads, schools, hospitals and libraries. In addition, many states use lotteries to raise money for charitable causes. In the United States, the majority of lottery profits are distributed to state education funds. Other states use their proceeds to support veterans’ programs, aid the poor and elderly, and build new infrastructure such as airports and highways.

A common way to run a lotteries is for the state to legislate a monopoly and then set up a government agency or public corporation to run the lotteries in exchange for a share of the revenues. The agencies often begin with a small number of fairly simple games and then, as they grow, expand into new types of gambling, such as video poker, keno and statewide scratch-off tickets. This expansion has created a second set of issues, which stem from the fact that lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues. As a result, their advertising campaigns are aimed at convincing people to spend their money on the lottery.

In addition, lotteries are increasingly being criticized for promoting gambling and regressively impacting low-income communities. This criticism is both a reaction to, and a driving force behind the continuing evolution of the industry. In the past, public officials established lotteries with a general desire to promote a sense of luck and opportunity. This is often a good thing, but it can be problematic if the industry is then driven by business concerns that divert attention and resources from the larger public interest. The continuing evolution of the lotteries, however, often results in decisions being made piecemeal and incrementally, with public policy considerations slipping into the background. As a result, few, if any, states have coherent gambling or lotteries policies.