Problems With the Lottery


The lottery has long been a popular source of public finance in many states, with the proceeds used for a wide range of purposes. However, it has never been without its problems. Lottery play is often regressive, and disproportionately affects low-income people. It also tends to be concentrated among certain socio-economic groups: men play more than women; black and Hispanic people more than whites; the young and old play less than those in the middle; and Catholics play more than Protestants. In addition, studies show that the bulk of lottery play comes from middle-income neighborhoods, while fewer proportionately come from high- or low-income areas.

The first state lotteries were essentially traditional raffles, with tickets being sold and the drawing occurring at some future date, sometimes weeks or even months away. But innovations in the 1970s radically transformed the industry. One of the biggest was the introduction of scratch-off tickets, which offered lower prize amounts and much better odds. As a result, they became a tremendously successful marketing tool for lottery sponsors.

Another problem with lotteries is that they have no real overarching policy framework. They are typically established piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview or consideration of the public interest. And once they are established, the authority and pressures for lottery officials are firmly focused on specific constituencies such as convenience store operators, lottery suppliers, teachers (when lottery revenues are earmarked for education), and state lawmakers who depend on their contributions.