Does the Public Have a Say in the Lottery?

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history (see, for instance, the Old Testament, Roman emperors’ lottery prizes, and the Chinese Book of Songs). State lotteries are comparatively recent; they were first introduced in the United States by British colonists in 1612. Lotteries are big business: Americans spend an estimated $100 billion each year on tickets. Yet, they’re not without problems, including negative impacts on the poor and problem gamblers, and questions about whether a state should run a game that promotes gambling and generates revenue for private corporations.

Despite these concerns, lotteries retain broad public support. Some state governments even use the proceeds to fund specific public goods, such as education. But, if the public is paying for something through a lottery, shouldn’t the public have some say in how that money is spent?

The answer to this question is not as simple as it might seem. Rather, it depends on how the money is distributed and the odds of winning. Moreover, it’s important to note that the objective fiscal health of the state government appears to have little impact on whether or when a lottery is established. In fact, studies have shown that state lotteries are often a popular source of revenue even when the government’s financial situation is relatively sound. This is because the lottery’s popularity tends to be related to its perceived benefits for the general public. Nevertheless, the regressive nature of the lottery’s burden is unmistakable: Low-income citizens pay a larger share of their income on lotteries than do higher-income individuals.

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