Public Benefits and the Lottery


Lottery is a fixture of American culture, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion annually on tickets. It is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world, and states promote the games as a way to raise revenue for public purposes. But are state governments serving the public interest by doing so? And if so, how much of that money actually makes it to the people who need it?

The history of the lottery goes back centuries. Its roots are found in the Old Testament, and it was used to give away land and slaves in ancient Rome. Benjamin Franklin once tried to use it to win cannons for Philadelphia, but his attempt failed. Throughout the colonial period, many states banned it or restricted its operation. It was not until the immediate post-World War II era that lottery promotion began to catch on in the United States.

State governments promote the lottery by saying that proceeds benefit a specific public good, such as education. This argument is especially effective during times of economic stress, when the threat of raising taxes or cutting government services can make the public nervous. It is important to note, however, that the popularity of lottery games is unrelated to the actual fiscal condition of state governments. Lottery popularity is consistently high, even in times when state governments are financially healthy.

Generally, the more numbers that a lottery has, the lower the odds are of winning. To improve your chances of winning, choose a game with few numbers, such as a regional lottery game or a state pick-3. In addition, avoid numbers that cluster together, such as those that start or end with the same digit. According to Richard Lustig, a lottery winner who has won seven times, you should also try not to play the same numbers every time.

Although people who buy lottery tickets can have irrational beliefs about the odds of winning, most are aware that their chances are slim. Yet they persist in buying tickets, arguing that they are helping the children, the elderly, or other groups that might otherwise have little discretionary income. This message, coupled with the fact that lotteries are inexpensive and easily accessible, has given the industry a great deal of staying power.

The bottom quintile of the income distribution has very little discretionary income, and they spend a large share of their income on lottery tickets. In addition, there is a certain amount of regressivity in lottery spending; poorer people spend more than richer people do on tickets. This regressive nature is another reason to be skeptical of state government promotion of the lottery. It may be that this revenue is necessary to maintain a basic level of services, but it should not come at the expense of those who need it most.