The Evolution of Lottery Public Policy


When people buy lottery tickets, they’re paying for a chance to win money or goods. The prize can be anything from a new car to cash. But there’s more to it than that. The drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. Lotteries are also a very popular source of public funding, used in the past to finance roads, canals, and other infrastructure, as well as churches and universities.

In the immediate post-World War II period, many states introduced lotteries as a way of boosting their social safety nets without significantly increasing taxes on middle- and lower-income residents. The resulting proliferation of state lotteries has been one of the great public policy success stories of the century, with their revenues now providing significant funds to the public sector in many states.

However, despite the popularity of the games, critics point to their reliance on chance and their alleged regressive impact on low-income households. These criticisms both reflect and drive the continuing evolution of lottery operations, as officials respond to public demand and seek new sources of revenue.

Lotteries are a classic example of how public policy is often made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall view. With authority (and pressures on lottery officials) split between the legislative and executive branches of a given state, the public’s interests are rarely fully considered in lottery planning. This has made it possible for lotteries to evolve in a variety of ways, with few, if any, states having a coherent “gambling policy” or even a “lottery policy.” In addition, the evolution of lotteries tends to shift debates and criticisms from their general desirability to specific features of their operations.