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The Lottery – Is it Appropriate for the Public Interest?

The lottery is a form of gambling in which the bettors are given a chance to win money or other prizes by drawing lots. The basic elements of a lottery are a mechanism for recording the identities and amounts staked by each betor, a means of shuffling those tickets, and a way of determining which tickets are among the winners. Most modern lotteries use a computer system to record the ticket numbers, but in older systems, each betor writes his or her name on the ticket and deposits it with the lottery organization for later shuffling and selection. The lottery system also needs to be able to print matching, coded numbers on the front and back of each ticket to prevent candling, delamination, and tampering. In addition, a heavy foil coating or other confusion patterns on the tickets can help to prevent light from passing through and illuminating the numbers.

The casting of lots to determine fates has a long record in human history, including several examples in the Bible. Its use to raise funds and distribute material rewards is much more recent, however, dating back only to the mid-16th century in Bruges. Lotteries became quite popular in the 17th century, particularly in Europe. In the United States, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery during the American Revolution to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, organized a private lottery to raise money to alleviate his crushing debts.

Although state governments have long run lotteries, the question of whether they are appropriate in the public interest remains an open one. The lottery industry is not only a source of revenue for the states; it develops extensive and specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who buy large quantities of tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these firms to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers in states that earmark lottery revenues for education; and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to a steady stream of gambling revenues).

Despite their popularity, there are concerns about the social impact of lotteries. For example, a number of studies show that the majority of state lottery players and revenues are drawn from middle-income neighborhoods. In contrast, lower-income populations participate in the lottery to a significantly lesser extent. In addition, the advertising of lotteries focuses heavily on persuading these specific groups to spend their money on the games. Critics argue that this promotion of gambling harms the poor and problem gamblers and that it is inconsistent with a state’s responsibility to advance the general welfare. However, the fact that many states have developed a dependency on lottery revenues makes the issue difficult to resolve. Moreover, the growth of state lotteries is a classic example of how public policy is often made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. As such, the evolution of the industry often takes precedence over the public interest.