Public Benefits of the Lottery

The lottery is a fixture in American society, with Americans spending upward of $100 billion on tickets each year. It is the most popular form of gambling, and states promote it as a way to raise money for public projects, including education. But it’s not necessarily the best or cheapest way to do so.

Lotteries have a long history in the West, with records of them dating back to Rome for municipal repairs and to the Low Countries in the 15th century where towns held lotteries to raise money for wall building and aid the poor. The prize money was generally modest, but the resulting excitement attracted large crowds and generated substantial revenues for town improvements.

People who play the lottery are typically insatiably hungry for money. They covet the things that money can buy, even though God’s Word forbids it: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his ox or donkey, his mill, or anything that is his.” Lotteries feed this insatiable greed. People who play the lottery are also usually irrational gamblers, despite knowing their odds of winning are long. They purchase multiple tickets and spend lots of time on their research, devising quote-unquote systems that are completely unfounded by statistical reasoning, about lucky numbers and stores and times to buy. They also have a nagging feeling that the lottery is their last, best or only chance to get ahead in life.

In addition to the obvious desire for wealth, a major driver of the lottery is that it is a painless tax. Since the earliest days of statehood, governments and licensed promoters have used lotteries to raise money for all sorts of public purposes. These include the founding of the British Museum, repairs to bridges, and funding for the Continental Army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Lotteries have become a common and convenient source of public revenue, with widespread support among the general population as well as from convenience store operators (who sell the most lottery tickets), suppliers (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns), teachers (for whom lottery revenues are often earmarked), and state legislators.

The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun “lot,” meaning fate. The modern sense of the word, however, dates from the 16th century. It was at that time used to refer to any random arrangement in which prizes are allocated by a process that depends wholly on chance. Modern lotteries meet this definition, and the prizes are generally paid out in cash, though some also offer goods or services. They can be run by private companies, governments, or organizations. The prizes are often a combination of a single large jackpot and many smaller ones.