Does the Lottery Make Sense?
The lottery is a surprisingly popular way for states to raise money. It is easy to organize, provides a good mix of prizes (large and small), can be run by private or public organizations, and generates substantial revenue for state governments. In fact, a lottery is one of the few government activities that the public consistently supports in referendums.
In some ways the lottery is a modern manifestation of an ancient human impulse to wager on improbable events. In fact, the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in history, including a number of biblical references. But the use of lotteries to distribute cash or goods for material gain is much more recent. By allowing people to pay $1 or $2 for the chance of winning huge sums, lotteries offer the prospect of low risk and high reward.
People buy tickets in large numbers, even though they know that the odds of winning are very low. This is an irrational behavior, but it is a human impulse. Many people feel they must try, at least once in their lives, to win the lottery. This is especially true of those who live in poor countries with a weak safety net. Billboards proclaiming the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpots play to this inexplicable human urge to gamble on a long shot.
The lottery has been a particularly successful fundraising tool for states because it offers a chance to fund state programs without the burden of raising taxes that would disproportionately affect the middle class and working classes. This arrangement was especially useful during the post-World War II period, when states needed to expand their social safety nets and do a lot of infrastructure work, but they did not want to add to an already heavy tax load on the working class.
But the big question is whether it makes sense for a society to depend so heavily on this kind of gambling. While it is a popular and proven means of raising funds, there are serious concerns that a dependence on it can undermine other forms of public funding.
The biggest problem is that lottery revenues do not translate well to other forms of public spending, such as education or health care. In addition, the purchasing of lottery tickets erodes other savings, such as those for retirement or college tuition. In effect, those who participate in the lottery contribute billions of dollars to government receipts that could be going to more pressing needs.