The Politics of the Lottery

In the United States, state lotteries result sdy enjoy broad popular support and, according to some studies, about 60% of adults play them at least once a year.1 Lottery proceeds are also a major source of revenue for many local governments, and for a variety of social programs and infrastructure projects. But critics of the lottery have argued that its popularity is undeserved and that it fails to promote economic growth and prosperity. They have charged that the monetary gains to some players are too high and that it contributes to problem gambling and regressive taxes on lower-income individuals.

Since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, they have spread across the country at a remarkably steady pace. Each state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public agency or corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to pressures to generate additional revenues, gradually expands the size and complexity of the lottery’s offerings.

Lotteries have long been a popular form of raising funds in Europe, with the first recorded ones dating to the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The early success of these lotteries helped inspire similar initiatives in other European nations, and, in the late 18th century, Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to help fund Boston’s Faneuil Hall and George Washington ran one to help build a road over a mountain pass in Virginia.

Throughout the history of these and other lotteries, politicians have defended them by stressing that the money raised is earmarked for specific public purposes, and thus the proceeds do not represent tax increases or cuts in other public services. This argument has proved effective, but research suggests that the objective fiscal condition of a state government is not a significant factor in its decision to adopt a lottery.

Once a lottery is established, however, it develops extensive and very specific constituencies—convenience store operators, for example (who reap substantial profits from their sales); suppliers of the winning numbers (whose heavy contributions to political campaigns are regularly reported); state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue); teachers (in states in which lotteries are earmarked for education)—and public opinion on its desirability tends to harden. As a result, debates about the lottery shift from general arguments for or against its introduction to more focused concerns about its operations and impact.

In the quest for a big win, some lottery players use “systems” to increase their chances of winning. One approach, advocated by Richard Lustig, a self-described serial winner who claims to have won seven times in two years, is to play numbers that have been winners previously. This does not increase the likelihood of a win in any particular drawing, but it can improve your odds over time. Another tip is to avoid playing the same numbers over and over again, which can limit your exposure to winning combinations.