Public Policy and the Lottery

Lottery is a game of chance where numbers are drawn in order to win prizes. The term “lottery” is probably derived from the Middle Dutch word lot meaning “fate” (as opposed to the German word Spiel, “game”). The first state-run lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century; town records in Ghent, Bruges, and Utrecht mention them raising funds for a variety of purposes, including building walls and town fortifications, and helping the poor.

The lottery is a popular source of funding for many different programs and services, from schools to parks and even prisons. However, the lottery has also been criticized for its potential to cause gambling addiction and regressive impact on lower-income populations. The most common argument for the adoption of a lottery is that it allows states to increase their range of public services without having to raise taxes on those who can least afford it.

In almost all cases, the lottery is set up by a legislature or public corporation rather than licensed to a private company in exchange for a percentage of profits; and it often begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. However, the constant pressure to generate additional revenue usually leads to a steady expansion of the lottery’s offerings, particularly through the introduction of new games.

The result is that the lottery has become a classic example of a public policy process that is dominated by piecemeal decision making and fragmented into multiple overlapping agencies, each with its own agendas, priorities, and procedures. The result is that very few, if any, states have a coherent “lottery policy.”