Does Running a Lottery Serve the Interests of Citizens?

Since New Hampshire introduced the modern lottery in 1964, many states have followed suit and now run their own lotteries, raising billions of dollars each year for public purposes. Yet the question lingers: does running a state-sponsored gambling operation serve the interests of citizens?

The answer is that it depends. Like most state activities, the lottery has been driven by a combination of factors.

First, there is an inextricable human urge to gamble and win. But this is only part of the story. More importantly, lottery proponents have long marketed the arrangement as a source of “painless” revenue, a way for state governments to spend money without having to impose onerous taxes on ordinary citizens.

In practice, of course, lottery revenues have not proved to be as painless as once hoped. In fact, their popularity seems to correlate with state government budget crises. Yet even when the state’s fiscal health is robust, the lottery retains broad public approval.

Lottery proponents have also cultivated a range of specific constituencies to help sustain their operations: convenience store operators (whose employees often work in lottery outlets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions from them to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states in which some lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and, of course, state legislators.

There is also a sense that the lottery reassures people that they are doing their civic duty, that it’s part of their obligation to support their state and society. Indeed, studies show that the majority of lottery players come from middle-income neighborhoods; far fewer play from low-income ones.