Lottery Critics Point to a Number of Problems


Lotteries are an enduring feature of American life. From the earliest colonial times, people have been using them to raise money for public works projects and other needs, as well as for charity and wars. They have even helped pay for a few notable buildings and events in early America, including Harvard and Yale. They also played a significant role in financing the Jamestown settlement and the colonial era’s tangled relationship with slavery.

In recent years, lottery revenues have grown to become a substantial part of many state’s budgets, making them an important source of revenue. Yet despite the public’s popularity of the games, critics point to a number of problems: the addictive nature of lottery gambling; the lack of control over state-run lotteries by legislators and governors; the regressive effect of lottery spending on lower-income groups; and the failure of most states to develop a comprehensive gaming policy.

The fundamental argument used by lottery proponents is that state governments need to expand programs and cut taxes, but voters are unwilling to accept tax increases or cuts in essential services, so they will instead support a lottery that supposedly raises money for the public good. The idea behind this logic is that lottery revenues are a painless source of funding, since players voluntarily spend their own money for the chance to win. Politicians like the idea because it provides them with a way to spend taxpayer dollars without increasing taxes.

When the first modern state-run lotteries were established, in the 1960s and 1970s, they were little more than traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for a drawing at some future date. Over time, however, innovations in lottery marketing and technology have transformed the industry. Today, a huge variety of different lottery products compete for consumer attention and revenue. Lottery games include instant (or scratch-off) tickets, drawing-style lotteries, and sports team lotteries.

Aside from the games themselves, a key issue is how and where the lotteries are sold. Lottery retailers include convenience stores, gas stations, supermarkets, drugstores, restaurants and bars, bowling alleys, and newsstands. Many states also sell lottery tickets online.

Aside from the issues discussed above, some critics of the lottery complain about misleading information in the advertising, particularly with regard to odds and prize amounts. Others are concerned about the potential for corruption. Lottery advertisements frequently claim that the games are “fair and open,” but critics have pointed out numerous examples of fraud and bribery in connection with the sale of lottery tickets. In addition, some critics complain that the profits from a lottery are often diverted to private businesses rather than used for the public good. The fact is that the majority of lottery profits do go toward public goods and services. But the public has a right to know exactly how much the proceeds from the lottery are actually benefiting those goods and services, and how much of the money is actually going to the winners.