The Proliferation of Lottery Games


A lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize is allocated by random chance. Prizes are usually cash or goods. Modern lotteries are used in a wide variety of situations, including military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away randomly, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters. There are two types of lottery: a game in which payment of a consideration is required to win, and a game in which no payment is required. Modern state lotteries fall in the latter category.

The first state lotteries grew out of the need for states to finance larger social safety nets without the burdensome taxation that would have otherwise been necessary. The popularity of lottery games in the immediate post-World War II period made them an attractive option for many states looking to expand their services without adding to existing taxes on working people.

Until recently, most state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, in which the public bought tickets for a drawing at some future date, often weeks or months out. But innovations in the 1970s transformed lotteries, making it possible to buy a ticket and instantly win a prize, rather than wait for a random drawing. These new games, known as scratch-offs, typically offered smaller prizes (in the 10s or 100s of dollars) and much higher odds of winning than a traditional lottery.

The success of these innovations has led to the proliferation of lotteries. Almost all states now have some type of state-sponsored lottery. And while many of these lotteries have broad popular support, they also develop extensive specific constituencies: convenience store operators (who often sell the tickets); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the steady flow of new tax revenue.

In general, critics charge that the ubiquity of lotteries in our society is harmful. They say that lotteries deceive the public by misrepresenting the odds of winning, inflating the value of the money won (as with jackpot prizes that are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the current value); and by fostering a false sense of meritocracy in which we all believe we’re going to be rich someday if we just play enough lottery games.

Despite the fact that lottery advertising frequently misrepresents these facts, there is no denying that many people enjoy playing the lottery. The problem is that when they do beat the odds and win, it’s important to have a plan for that windfall. That way, they can avoid the big mistakes that many other lottery winners have made. The biggest mistake is to show off their wealth, which can make people jealous and lead to problems. Instead, they should focus on donating some of their prize to charity and using the rest for investments.