The Politics of the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of prizes, such as money, goods or services. It has been used in some countries since ancient times, and in modern times it is a popular source of public funding for state government programs. There are several different kinds of lotteries, including the financial lottery where people pay to select a group of numbers and win if they match those that are randomly selected by a machine, and the charitable lottery where individuals or organizations submit names for consideration. Both types of lotteries raise a great deal of money and generate a lot of controversy.

Cohen’s book centers on the development of state-run lotteries in the United States in the twentieth century, when a combination of budget crises and rising taxes inspired many states to look for ways to balance their books without incurring the anger of anti-tax voters. Lotteries were a popular choice because they allowed the states to raise funds for a wide range of state usages without increasing taxes or cutting spending, and they could be advertised as “painless” revenue generators.

Once a lottery was established, however, the politics of the lottery quickly changed. The focus of discussion shifted from whether a lottery was a desirable enterprise to the specific features of operation, especially the advertising campaign and its alleged impact on problem gamblers and poorer populations. Lotteries are run as businesses, so their advertising strategies are geared toward maximizing revenues. They usually start with a small number of relatively simple games and then, because revenues tend to decline with time, introduce new products to maintain growth and attract interest. In addition, they are pushed to increase jackpots, because these enormous amounts of money can generate a wave of free publicity on news sites and in television shows and newscasts, drawing additional customers.

When it comes to advertising, the main message is that winning the lottery is fun and that scratch-off tickets are easy to buy and easy to use. The underlying message, though, is that the lottery is a game that can be played by everyone and that it’s not “real gambling.” This coded language obscures the regressivity of the lottery and makes it easy for state officials to defend it.

Few, if any, states have a coherent “gambling policy” or even a lottery policy, and the policies that do exist are often changed by the evolving industry. This process is a classic example of policy making occurring in piecemeal fashion, with each agency developing its own agenda and focusing on the short term, and leaving legislators to inherit a system they have little control over. This situation is at the root of a wide range of criticisms of lottery operations, from complaints about its regressive effects on lower-income populations to the questionable practice of selling tickets to minors.