Public Benefits of the Lottery

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. But lotteries as a means of raising money for public projects are of more recent origin, first appearing in England around 1612. The American colonies began holding state lotteries in the early 1780s. They helped fund towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. The Continental Congress even used a lottery to finance the Revolutionary War.

In the modern era, state lotteries develop broad and specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (lottery tickets are widely available in these stores); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by them to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and state legislators who quickly become accustomed to a steady stream of additional revenue. In addition, lotteries are highly popular with the public at large, attracting people from all social classes and income levels.

One reason for the broad public support is that, unlike a tax, the proceeds from a lottery are seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. This argument is particularly effective when a state government’s fiscal health is stressed, but it also works well when the state’s financial condition is strong. And, despite the perception that there is no logical relationship between the size of the jackpot and the popularity of the lottery, it has been shown that jackpots do increase in proportion to the number of players.