Gambling Why Do Governments Run Lotteries?

Why Do Governments Run Lotteries?


A lottery is a game in which numbered tickets are sold for a prize based on chance. Most states and the District of Columbia run lotteries, and a few countries use them as a way to raise money for public projects. But it’s not always clear why governments run these games, and it’s even harder to understand the motivations of people who play them. The answer to the latter question is straightforward: people like to gamble, and it’s hard to resist the lure of instant riches. But there’s much more going on than that in the case of lottery players.

For one, lotteries are designed to be addictive, and they’re successful at it. The prize amounts are large enough to tempt a wide variety of people, and the ads they run on TV and in newspapers are designed to create a sense of urgency about buying tickets. The result is a “cycle of hope and despair” that’s very difficult to break, Vox reports. And that cycle extends beyond the individual, as state lotteries disproportionately target low-income communities, minorities, and those who have gambling problems.

The practice of drawing lots to determine ownership and other rights dates back centuries, and it was brought to the United States by British colonists in the seventeenth century. The early reaction to lotteries was largely negative, but they became popular in the Northeast, where the states were trying to expand their social safety nets without raising taxes too much. Many of the nation’s first colleges owe their existence to lotteries, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and the New York State legislature held multiple lotteries to pay for the construction of its buildings.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. But there are six states that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi, Utah, and Washington. It’s not because they don’t like lotteries; they just see them as a bad idea for their citizens. Those who don’t run lotteries are worried about a number of things, including the possibility that a lottery could become a form of slavery and the fact that it could attract unsavory elements into the society.

The truth is that most states, especially those with small populations, rely on lotteries for a good chunk of their revenue. But the underlying reason is not a desire to make money but a need to protect voters from state budget crises. This is why they advertise the games so heavily and produce gaudy tickets that look like nightclub fliers spliced with Monster Energy drinks. And it’s why they target poor and minority neighborhoods. People who play lotteries aren’t just chasing a dream; they’re also chasing the illusion of opportunity in a country with limited social mobility and growing inequality.