The Lottery and Its Critics


The lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are randomly drawn to determine the winners of cash prizes. Players buy tickets, often for only $1 each, and are awarded prizes if enough of their selected numbers match those randomly drawn by machines. The game has become popular because it allows participants to win substantial amounts of money with a small investment. However, there are many criticisms of the lottery that claim it is a form of gambling with serious consequences for poor people and problem gamblers.

Most states operate lotteries, and their popularity has proven remarkably enduring. Lotteries are viewed by their proponents as painless ways to raise public revenue, especially in times of fiscal stress when the prospect of higher taxes or cuts to public services threatens political stability. Lotteries are also viewed as an alternative to raising taxes and are portrayed as a more equitable way of distributing wealth than the distribution of funds through legislative channels.

While the casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long history (including several instances in the Bible), state-sponsored lotteries to distribute prize money for material goods have only recently gained widespread acceptance. Lotteries are run as a business with a primary goal of maximizing revenues through advertising and other promotional activities. This concentration on profits is at odds with the state’s stated mission of promoting the general welfare, and it has generated serious criticism in some quarters.

Unlike other government programs, state lotteries have not been developed with any comprehensive plan for their role in the public life. Rather, they have evolved piecemeal, in response to a variety of local and economic pressures. Typically, a state establishes a monopoly; establishes a public corporation or agency to run the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, as revenue growth plateaus, expands the lottery through new games and more aggressive promotion.

In most states, the bulk of lottery players and revenue is concentrated in middle-income neighborhoods. By contrast, the poor participate in the lottery at far lower rates than their percentage of the population. This has led to charges that the lottery promotes social inequality and is a source of financial hardship for low-income families.

The earmarking of lottery proceeds for particular purposes has also become a target of criticism. Critics argue that earmarking does not increase overall funding for a designated purpose, but instead simply reduces the amount of money that would have otherwise been allotted to it from the general fund. They further contend that the earmarked funds are not dedicated to a specific purpose and are at risk of being diverted for other uses.