The Lottery and Its Critics


While casting lots for decision-making and determining fates has a long history (and even appears in the Bible), lotteries distributing money awards for material gain are relatively recent, first appearing in Europe in the 15th century in cities attempting to raise funds to strengthen defenses or aid the poor.

When a lottery is run as a business, with an eye to maximizing revenues, advertising necessarily concentrates on persuading people to spend their hard-earned money on tickets. Critics charge that this is an inappropriate function for the state, and can have negative consequences on the poor and problem gamblers, among others.

As a result, state lotteries tend to evolve along particular paths: they legislate a monopoly for themselves; often form a public agency or corporation to operate them (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); start with a small number of simple games; and then, as revenues rise and reach a plateau, introduce new games in order to continue increasing revenue. This process of innovation has spawned a host of additional issues.

For example, research shows that state-sanctioned lotteries disproportionately draw players and revenue from middle-income neighborhoods, while low-income people participate at far lower levels than their proportion in the population. In addition, many online lotteries make their money by requiring users to pay a subscription fee in order to play. These fees can be as much as $50 a month or more.