Public Policy and the Lottery Industry

The practice of making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history. The first recorded public lottery was held during the reign of Augustus Caesar for municipal repairs in Rome. The modern state lotteries, on the other hand, are a relatively recent development. They are, however, a major public policy issue and a subject of considerable controversy. Critics argue that they promote addictive gambling behavior, that they are a major regressive tax on lower-income groups and are subject to abuses by lottery operators. In addition, they claim that they run at cross-purposes with the state’s general responsibility to protect the welfare of its citizens.

In order to win and retain broad public approval, lotteries typically promote themselves as a source of “painless” revenue for the government that benefits the general public without raising taxes. Studies, however, have shown that the popularity of lotteries is not related to a state’s actual financial health. Instead, it is linked to the perception that a lottery represents a “good bargain” because players are voluntarily spending their money to support a particular cause.

Once a lottery has been established, state officials are often unable to change its basic design because of the way in which the industry is structured. The industry is a classic example of the “piecemeal” approach to public policy. Decisions are made at the local level and then implemented on a piece-by-piece basis with little overall overview. As a result, the industry quickly evolves into something different from what was originally intended.