Lottery Benefits and Public Goods

The concept of distributing property or services through lottery dates to ancient times. In the Old Testament, God commanded Moses to distribute land by lot, and in Rome, the emperors used it to give slaves away at Saturnalian feasts. In modern times, state lotteries have been popular in many countries. Some have been accused of promoting addictive gambling behavior, while others are viewed as major regressive taxes that detract from public spending on the poor.

The defining argument of state lotteries is that the proceeds are intended to benefit a particular public good, such as education. This message has been successful in winning and maintaining broad public approval for these games. It has been particularly effective during periods of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases or cuts in public programs is most feared. However, studies show that the objective fiscal condition of state governments has little to do with whether or when they adopt a lottery.

In addition to promoting the benefits of the game, lottery officials often emphasize its fun and novelty. They also point to the relatively low price of a ticket. In combination, these messages obscure the regressive nature of lottery gaming and conceal how much people play. Moreover, they promote the belief that the odds are incredibly favorable, thereby masking the fact that most people do not win. Those who do not win are likely to continue playing the lottery, and thus perpetuate the regressive effects of the game.