Public Policy and the Lottery

Lotteries have been around for centuries. They were common in the Roman Empire (Nero loved them) and later, during early American colonial days, despite Protestant prohibitions on gambling. They are, after all, simply a form of gaming whereby a number or numbers are drawn at random and the winner is awarded money or goods. As such, they can be viewed as a public good as long as the entertainment value of playing and the likelihood of winning are high enough to outweigh any monetary loss.

As Cohen argues, however, the lottery’s ubiquity in America is symptomatic of a much larger problem. From the nineteen-seventies onward, our national obsession with unimaginable wealth has coincided with a decline in financial security for most working families. Incomes have stagnated, pensions and job security have eroded, health-care costs have risen, and the once-promising promise that your children will do better than you did has largely dissolved.

Lottery officials often argue that the regressive nature of state gaming revenues is a result of the way in which these funds are distributed, and not because of a gambling addiction or other public policy concern. They point out that, once a lottery is established, most states have no overall public-welfare gambling strategy and thus lack the ability to change specific features of its operations. This is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with decisions dominated by the industry’s ongoing evolution, rather than the need for a holistic public-welfare strategy.