Public Benefits of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small sum for a chance to win a large prize. Players choose a group of numbers or symbols, or machines do it for them, and win prizes if some or all of their chosen ones match the winning numbers. Lotteries have long been a popular form of gambling and sometimes the money raised by these games is used for public good.

But in recent decades, America’s fondness for the numbers game has coincided with a decline in financial security for many working people. As incomes fell, jobs disappeared, unemployment rose, and health-care costs climbed, the old promise that hard work would lift people out of poverty and into a middle class was increasingly untrue. Lottery sales increased as a result.

While defenders of the lottery often argue that gamblers will buy tickets regardless, they are also aware that states can limit how much is spent on them and regulate their advertising to reduce addiction. In addition, they have found ways to make the numbers game seem more palatable by arguing that it will fund a specific government service, usually education, but also public parks, aid for veterans, or subsidized housing units. The narrower argument makes it easier to persuade voters, who are less averse to gambling but still oppose raising taxes. Lotteries have been a fixture in American life since the early republic, when George Washington managed one that offered slaves as prizes and Denmark Vesey won enough money to help foment a slave rebellion.