Lottery Revenue – Is It Appropriate For States to Pursue Public Lottery Programs?


The lottery has become a fixture in American society, with Americans spending upward of $100 billion on tickets per year. But a lot of people lose a lot of money on these tickets. This isn’t necessarily because they are bad at math, but rather because they buy lottery tickets based on superstitions and false hope—and, in doing so, they miss the chance to make calculated choices based on probability.

Lottery games are a major source of revenue for state governments. In some cases, the amount of money generated by a lottery exceeds that raised by taxation and borrowing. This raises important questions about whether these revenue streams are appropriate for states to pursue.

Historically, public lotteries have been used to fund a variety of projects. In colonial America, for example, they were used to finance a number of American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia). In addition, they also financed the construction of roads, wharves, bridges, and other public works. In modern times, lottery revenue has primarily supported education and other public services.

State legislatures have generally authorized the lotteries by a process of constitutional amendment or voter referendum. When these measures are adopted, the states usually establish a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begin operations with a small number of relatively simple games; and then expand the games through the introduction of new products. Typically, revenues expand dramatically at the beginning of a lottery’s life cycle and then level off or even decline. This has led to a continual effort to introduce new games in an attempt to maintain or increase revenues.

The state’s desire to maximize its lottery revenues has driven this evolution of the industry, with a particular focus on new games with higher prize amounts and shorter odds of winning. While this may have increased revenues, it has also fueled concerns about the effects of these games on poorer households and their alleged regressive impact.

Despite these criticisms, most states have been able to sustain their lotteries through legislative processes. Lottery advocates argue that the proceeds from these games help support a specific public good and are thus worthy of public approval. However, studies have shown that this claim is overstated. Lottery popularity is not correlated with the objective fiscal condition of the state, and it is difficult to measure how much a particular game contributes to overall state funding. Regardless of their merits, these policies should be subject to greater scrutiny. This is especially true given the emergence of the new economy in which government has lost its traditional role as the primary determinant of public goods and the allocation of resources. Instead, we need to rethink our assumptions about how to achieve the public good.