Lottery Policy and the Compulsive Gambler

Generally speaking, lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn to determine winners. The numbers can be chosen randomly or based on specific criteria, such as the purchase of tickets. Regardless of the criteria, the odds of winning are typically high, and people often spend a great deal of money to do so. It is not uncommon for lottery games to generate huge prize amounts, making them an attractive source of revenue.

Many states have adopted lotteries to supplement state budgets and, more specifically, to fund social safety nets. The idea was that lottery proceeds would allow governments at all levels to increase their programs without having to increase taxes on the middle class and working classes. This arrangement seemed especially appealing in the immediate post-World War II era, with its large and expanding social safety nets. Unfortunately, state governments quickly became dependent on these “painless” lottery revenues, and pressures continue to mount to increase them.

Lottery revenues are typically quite dramatic in the beginning, but then level off and sometimes even decline over time. In order to maintain or grow revenues, lotteries must constantly introduce new games. These innovations are designed to appeal to a broad audience, but they also create a substantial and largely unrecognized class of lottery players: the compulsive gamblers.

For many of these people, lottery playing is a serious problem and a major drain on resources. They play regularly and spend a large percentage of their incomes on tickets. They have quote-unquote systems for selecting lucky numbers and are convinced that they have a better chance of winning than the general public. Moreover, they are frequently willing to purchase multiple tickets, to spend more than their means permit, and to engage in other forms of risk-taking behavior.

Some critics charge that lottery advertising is deceptive and misleading, presenting the odds of winning as much higher than they actually are, inflating the value of prizes (lotto jackpots are usually paid in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value), and so forth. Others have a more fundamental concern about the regressivity of lottery revenue distribution.

There is no clear solution to this dilemma, but it is important that lawmakers and the public understand the nature of these issues. Ideally, policy makers would develop a coherent state gambling policy that takes all of these concerns into account. However, in reality, state policies tend to be established piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. In most states, lottery officials are appointed from and reelected by a variety of special interest groups that have their own agendas, and the general welfare is rarely taken into account.