Raising Money For Public Goods Through the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in human history and is documented at least as early as the Bible. Lotteries that award material prizes are relatively recent, however, and have gained in popularity as a means of raising money for public goods, particularly since the end of World War II, when states faced budget shortfalls and voters were increasingly demanding services.

Whether they are a game of chance or a mechanism for allocating housing units in a subsidized-housing complex or kindergarten placements at a prestigious school, lotteries offer people the opportunity to rewrite their own stories. They also stoke people’s desires for wealth and power, a temptation hard to resist in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

Lotteries raise money for state programs by selling tickets to a large group of the population at a single price. They then distribute the prize money to winners by using a drawing, which may involve mixing the tickets or symbols on them by some mechanical means—such as shaking or tossing—or by randomly selecting numbers from computerized pools or counterfoils.

Those who promote the lottery claim that it provides a source of painless revenue to fund state government activities, with winnings paid from players voluntarily spending their own money. But critics point out that the earmarking of lottery proceeds for specific purposes—such as education—merely reduces the amount of general-fund appropriations for those programs and frees up more money for whatever purpose the legislature chooses.