The Lottery and Its Consequences


The lottery is a popular form of gambling. Its revenue is critical to many state budgets and it helps subsidize a wide range of programs. But its popularity is also a source of enduring controversy. Lottery supporters defend it by arguing that it gives ordinary people the chance to win large sums of money, and therefore provides more benefits than direct taxation can achieve. Critics, on the other hand, argue that lottery advertising deceives the public by exaggerating odds of winning and obscuring the long-term value of jackpot prizes (which are often paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the current value). They also assert that the industry is predatory, exploiting naive people’s hopes of becoming millionaires.

The first modern state-run lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with tickets purchased in advance of a future drawing at a date weeks or months away. But innovations in the 1970s altered this pattern, and now most state lotteries offer a range of “instant games.” Some are scratch-off tickets with lower prize amounts but relatively high odds of winning. Others are games of skill, where players must choose a series of numbers or symbols.

As a result, modern lottery revenues typically expand rapidly after they are introduced, but then begin to level off and decline. This leads to a race to introduce new games in order to maintain or increase revenues. The result is that lottery participation remains very high, and it tends to be cyclical: the percentage of people who play the lottery rises sharply in their twenties and thirties, dips slightly in their forties, fifties and sixties, and then begins to fall again in their seventies.