Public Policy and the Lottery
While many states have adopted lotteries as a way to generate revenue, some critics claim they promote addictive gambling behavior, impose regressive tax burdens on lower-income groups, and lead to other social problems. Others argue that the lottery is a legitimate form of state funding for public goods and services. Whether or not these arguments have merit, it is clear that the lottery is one of those rare public policy issues that is subject to continual debate and change as society’s attitudes and circumstances evolve.
The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lotte, meaning fate or destiny, which is derived from the root lut “to chance.” Lotteries are a popular source of fund raising for governments, schools, churches and charitable causes. They are also a popular pastime among many people who want to improve their chances of winning. In general, they consist of drawing numbers from a set and comparing them to those that are randomly drawn. The prize money varies depending on the type of lottery, and may be a cash or merchandise award, such as a sports team, car or a house.
State governments typically establish their own monopoly for running the lottery (rather than licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); start operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, as public demand and pressure for additional revenues increase, gradually add new ones to maintain or increase revenue. A key element in gaining and retaining public approval is the degree to which proceeds from lotteries are seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. However, studies have shown that the actual fiscal condition of the state government appears to have very little influence over whether or when a lottery is introduced and how rapidly it expands.
Lotteries are run as a business, and advertising campaigns are geared to maximizing revenues by persuading target audiences to spend their money on tickets. Some critics suggest that the state is at cross-purposes in its desire to promote gambling and its responsibility to safeguard the welfare of the people.
A key issue with the lottery is that it promotes the false idea that money is the answer to life’s problems. This is a form of covetousness, which God forbids as follows: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his field, his manservant, his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, his sheep or herd, or anything that is his.” (Exodus 20:17)
Most people who play the lottery participate regularly and often, so there are many reasons to be concerned about the potential negative effects. For example, research suggests that most lottery players are middle-class, while low-income people are disproportionately less likely to play the game than their percentage of the population. This is a cause for concern because it suggests that the lottery is not reaching those most in need of help. In addition, winning a big jackpot can have huge tax implications and could end up costing more than the amount won.