Public Policy and the Lottery


In the United States, millions of people play lottery games each week, spending billions of dollars annually. Some people play just for fun, while others believe the lottery is their ticket to a better life. Regardless of why you choose to play, the odds are not in your favor. The truth is that most people who win the lottery are not very rich at all. In fact, winning the lottery is like running a high-stakes version of a get-rich-quick scheme that will most likely leave you broke in the long run. It is also contrary to God’s instruction that we should work hard to earn our money: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 23:4).

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. Prizes may be cash or goods. Lotteries are legalized and regulated by state governments. The prizes are financed by a portion of the money that is collected from participants. In most cases, lottery proceeds are used for public education and other public needs.

When a lottery is established, the state usually legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, in response to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the size and complexity of the games offered. Lotteries also rely on the publicity generated by large jackpots to drive ticket sales, which are typically advertised in newspapers and on newscasts.

The growth of state lotteries is a classic example of the way in which public policy is often made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. In the case of lotteries, authority is fragmented between legislative and executive branches and then further divided among individual lottery officials, with a result that the general public welfare is rarely taken into consideration.

Lottery officials are also heavily dependent on the support of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who serve as the primary distributors for tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers (in those states in which a share of lotteries’ profits is earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra tax revenue).

One of the main reasons why a lottery is popular is that it provides an attractive alternative to paying taxes. But there is more than that to the story, and it is a story that is important to understand if you are going to be a responsible citizen. Lottery is not an easy choice, and there are real issues that need to be addressed before we endorse this form of gambling. In the meantime, we should remember that the Bible teaches us to avoid all forms of gambling, even those that are legal.