Public Policy and the Lottery

Lotteries are a form of gambling in which people buy tickets for chances to win. The prizes are usually cash or goods. The lottery is often criticized for being addictive and for contributing to poverty, but it also has its fans. People who play the lottery spend billions each year. While the odds of winning are low, people who do win can use their money to improve their lives.

The practice of dividing property or other goods by lot dates back to ancient times. Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and properties during Saturnalian feasts, and the casting of lots is mentioned throughout the Bible. Later, lotteries were used to give away goods and services in colonial America as a way of raising money for roads, libraries, churches, canals, and bridges. They were also important in financing private ventures like the foundation of Princeton and Columbia universities.

Lottery revenue usually increases rapidly when first introduced and then begins to level off, or even decline, over time. To maintain revenues, lotteries have to introduce new games with different prize amounts and higher jackpots. This process is a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with authority and pressures being fragmented between the legislative and executive branches of government. The result is that public officials are left with a set of policies and a dependency on revenues that they can do little about. This makes the lottery a case study in how difficult it is for government at any level to manage an activity that it profits from.