The Pros and Cons of State Lottery Programs


A lottery is a random process for allocating limited resources. Examples include the allocation of apartments in a subsidized housing project and kindergarten placements at a public school. In the United States, state governments have established lotteries to distribute money and prizes for various purposes. These state-sponsored lotteries have gained widespread popularity over the years. But they are not without controversy. Critics charge that state officials are promoting lottery games for reasons other than the stated ones. They allege that the promotion of lotteries deceives the public by presenting misleading information about the odds of winning and inflating the value of prize money (a jackpot payout is usually paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding its current value).

The practice of casting lots to determine fates and property distribution has ancient roots. The Old Testament tells Moses to take a census of the Israelites and divide land by lot; and Roman emperors distributed property and slaves in this fashion during Saturnalian feasts.

Lotteries have become popular because they offer a way for states to spend large sums of money without raising taxes or cutting important social programs. They are especially attractive in times of economic distress when voters fear that their state’s government is in fiscal trouble. However, many studies have shown that the popular acceptance of a lottery is not related to a state’s actual financial health or the extent of its available services.