What Makes a Lottery Popular?


A lottery is a form of gambling in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held to select the winners. The odds of winning a lottery prize vary widely, but the prizes can be very large. Lotteries are popular and a common source of income for state governments, which often use the proceeds for public goods such as education. However, critics of lotteries point to a number of problems, including the potential for corruption and the inability to predict who will win.

The state legislature typically enacts a law to establish a monopoly for itself and then sets up a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery. It normally begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games and then, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, gradually expands the variety of available games. A major factor in determining how many games are offered is the question of whether to offer only a few very large prizes or to provide several smaller prizes at varying levels of intensity. While some bettors are attracted by the possibility of a huge windfall, others seem to be more interested in a fixed number of smaller prizes.

There are also other factors that affect the popularity of a lottery. A surprisingly important one is the degree to which it can be seen as being part of a larger system of government-sponsored activities that contribute to the public good. In a society that increasingly devalues taxation, a lottery can be seen as a painless form of financing a wide range of uses. In fact, some of the oldest state lotteries were designed to finance such projects as the construction of the British Museum and a number of bridges in the American colonies. Benjamin Franklin even held a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

A third element that makes a lottery attractive is the extent to which it is perceived as being free of corruption. For example, it is common for lotteries to employ an independent auditing firm to review the integrity of the drawing process and to ensure that all procedures are conducted according to strict protocol. Various other safeguards may be included, such as the use of tamper-evident seals to protect against any attempt at manipulation and the requirement that employees be trained in how to handle sensitive financial data.

Lotteries have become so popular that they are considered a form of gambling in most states. In addition, they develop extensive specific constituencies that include convenience store operators (the typical lottery vendors); suppliers of lottery merchandise (hefty contributions from these businesses to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in states where lotteries revenues are earmarked for schools); and state legislators (who quickly come to rely on this source of revenue).

A final consideration is the degree to which a lottery can attract and retain broad public approval. This is usually most easily accomplished when the proceeds are viewed as benefiting a specific and desirable public good, such as education. Unfortunately, as Clotfelter and Cook point out, the popularity of state lotteries often has little or nothing to do with a state’s actual fiscal health.