A Closer Look at the Lottery


The casting of lots to determine fates and fortunes has a long history (see, for example, the Old Testament), but lotteries that award money have been around since the early modern period. Despite the negative reactions that accompanied their initial appearance, state lotteries have become a fixture in the economy. People spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets each year, and governments use them to raise money for many programs. The lottery may not be evil, but it is worth scrutiny, especially given the regressive effect that it has on lower-income groups.

Most states have a variety of lotteries, but they all operate with the same basic structure. A commission, a board or an oversight committee is in charge of running the lottery. This group is generally composed of a mix of political appointees and business leaders, with the commissioner or board president acting as an executive leader. A public opinion poll typically precedes the establishment of a new lottery, and the commission or board must also obtain legislative approval.

In addition to the general public, lottery officials must cultivate specific constituencies that include convenience store operators (for whom lotteries are the main source of revenue); lottery suppliers (who frequently make large contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (in states in which a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for education); and state legislators, who have grown used to the extra income generated by the games. Nevertheless, few states have a coherent “lottery policy,” and the decisions that go into establishing a lottery quickly become submerged in the continuing evolution of the industry.