The Hidden Costs of a Lottery

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn and prizes won. The word comes from the Dutch “lot,” meaning fate, and it’s used to describe an event whose outcome is entirely dependent on chance. Lotteries are one of the oldest forms of gambling and have been a popular method for raising money for public goods such as roads, schools, and colleges. During the colonial period in America, lotteries were even used to fund major projects such as paving streets and constructing wharves.

When governments sponsor a lottery, they promote an activity that’s at cross-purposes with the welfare of their citizens. The purpose of a state lottery is to maximize its revenues and, by extension, to promote gambling. That promotion, however, comes with a cost to the public that cannot be easily dismissed or ignored.

The first issue is that state lottery officials are promoting a form of gambling that they profit from and, as a result, are incentivized to keep growing the business. In an anti-tax era, this is at odds with the general welfare.

The second issue is that state lottery commissions are promoting an idea of the lottery as a game, something playful and fun. This message obscures the regressive nature of lottery revenue and masks the irrationality of people’s spending habits. People who play the lottery spend a significant percentage of their income on tickets and are often driven by this irrational belief that they will win someday.