When states establish lotteries, they often promote them as a painless way for taxpayers to support a wide range of public services. This argument is especially powerful during times of economic stress when state government services are under pressure, or when voters fear that taxes will increase or programs will be cut. It’s also a common line of argument during elections when politicians seek to portray themselves as more fiscally responsible than their opponents.
But lottery critics allege that the practice of drawing lots is anything but “painless.” In their view, the cost of purchasing a ticket outweighs the potential monetary gain, and thus the purchase is irrational. They further claim that lotteries promote addictive gambling behavior and are a major regressive tax on lower-income groups, and they warn that the state must balance its desire to raise revenue with its responsibility to protect the welfare of the general public.
The casting of lots to decide matters of fate has a long record in human history, with multiple examples in the Bible. Modern lotteries may be considered either gambling or non-gambling; the latter involves a distribution of prizes (often ranging from expensive dinnerware to valuable goods) without payment of a consideration. Lotteries may also be used to select military conscripts, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, or even for selecting jurors from lists of registered voters.
In contrast, the most common type of lottery in modern America is a game of chance in which participants are invited to purchase tickets for a drawing that can yield a large prize such as cash or goods. The prize amounts for these games are usually set by the state. Many of these games are played online. The term “lottery” is derived from the Dutch word lot (“fate”), and the English word was probably first borrowed from Middle French loterie (“action of drawing lots”) or from Latin loteries, both of which have a derivation in Old High German.
Despite the obvious risk of losing money, people do buy lottery tickets. This suggests that there is an inextricable desire to gamble, and perhaps to take advantage of opportunities for quick riches. Whether this impulse is inborn or acquired is an open question. But the fact is that lottery players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite, and they spend far more than their percentage of the population. As a result, the vast majority of lottery revenues come from these groups. And, according to the research cited by Clotfelter and Cook, this is one of the reasons why lotteries are so popular.