Public Benefits of the Lottery

Throughout history people have cast lots to determine many things. The practice has a long record and stretches back to ancient times, including several biblical instances. Making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has also been an important form of social exchange. The first public lotteries to distribute prizes in the form of cash were recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with records from Ghent, Bruges, and Utrecht indicating that they were used for municipal repairs and for helping the poor.

Lottery revenues typically expand dramatically when they are introduced and then level off and sometimes decline. To sustain and increase revenues, lotteries must introduce new games constantly.

The advertising strategy of state lotteries necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money. Some of these groups are poor, problem gamblers, or otherwise at risk. The issue is not whether the lottery is a good thing; it is how it promotes gambling and whether it is at cross-purposes with the broader public interest.

While a state’s objective fiscal conditions may be a factor in whether or not it establishes a lottery, it has no effect on the popularity of the game once it is established. Rather, the success of lotteries is dependent on their ability to convey to the public that the proceeds of the lottery are being used for some specific public benefit such as education. This argument has proved very effective, even in states with well-established educational systems.