Lottery Critics

The casting of lots for a prize has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. The first public lottery was held during the Roman Empire for municipal repairs in Rome. Its success led to state lotteries, whose revenues became a major source of public finance.

Despite public enthusiasm, lottery critics focus on specific features of the operation, such as the dangers to compulsive gamblers and its regressive effect on low-income groups. They also question whether it is appropriate for government to promote gambling as a way to raise revenue.

Lottery advertising frequently focuses on enticing potential customers by highlighting big jackpots and announcing a large number of winners. Critics allege that these promotions are deceptive, commonly presenting misleading information about the odds of winning, inflating the value of the money won (most lotto jackpots are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding its current value), and so forth.

The history of state lotteries, following New Hampshire’s 1964 initiative, illustrates a pattern common to most public policy innovations: initial enthusiasm, a rapid expansion in revenues, then a gradual leveling off or even decline. The industry is constantly introducing new games in an effort to maintain or increase revenues, but most of these are not as popular with the general public as the original offerings.