The word lottery conjures images of large, exciting prize-winners – and those images are right. However, those winning the big prizes are few and far between. The vast majority of winners are ordinary people who spend more than they can afford to – and, if they play enough, they can end up bankrupt in just a few years. But despite the odds of winning being so low, lotteries continue to be popular in America and are a significant source of revenue for state, local and federal governments.
In fact, since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, no state has abolished one. State lotteries have broad public support: in states with lotteries, 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. In addition, they develop extensive specific constituencies: convenience store operators (the usual vendors for the games); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states where some of the revenues are earmarked for education); and, of course, state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue).
These various constituencies give the lottery enormous clout in the political realm. As a result, despite the frequent criticism of lotteries, they have endured. The debates that take place about them, however, tend to focus on issues rather than the basic concept itself. Those issues range from concerns about compulsive gambling to alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups.
Moreover, many of these concerns are actually responses to particular features of the lottery’s operations. The most glaring example is the lottery’s reliance on super-sized jackpots. These jackpots drive lottery sales, and are an essential tool for lottery marketers. They generate huge publicity, and are a good way to promote the games on television and in newspapers. They also encourage speculative buying, as people hope that a super-sized jackpot will occur sooner or later.
Other examples include lottery-funded scholarships and student loans, and the building of many of America’s most elite universities. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for cannons for the defense of Philadelphia against the British.
It might seem surprising that a nation of such diverse political and cultural beliefs could agree on the concept of a lottery, but this is exactly what has happened. There is, however, one area of disagreement: how much a lottery’s jackpots should be. While some people think that larger jackpots are better for the game, others argue that the size of a lottery’s top prize should depend on the overall health of the economy. Some states are in the midst of economic booms, while others are struggling. A higher top prize might stimulate spending and help a struggling economy recover, but it should be accompanied by more generous rules governing the distribution of smaller prizes. This would allow more people to benefit from the lottery without jeopardizing their financial security.