Lottery Policy and the Challenge of Balancing Budgets

Lottery is a gambling game in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are given to the holders of numbers drawn at random. Usually, the prize is money but sometimes goods or services. State governments often regulate lotteries. They may establish a lottery division to operate the games and to select and license retailers, train employees of those who sell the tickets and redeem winnings, assist those who promote the games, pay high-tier prizes, and ensure that players and retailers comply with state laws. Some state lotteries are based on scratch-off tickets, while others involve drawing numbers from a ball or bowl.

Lotteries are not without controversy, and some critics have charged that they promote irrational behavior. Others argue that they help subsidize government programs and are a viable alternative to tax increases. Nonetheless, many people still play them. In fact, Americans spend over $80 billion a year on lottery tickets. Those dollars could be used to build an emergency fund or pay off credit card debt.

The big question for policymakers is whether a lottery is appropriate in any given context, especially when state governments are struggling to balance budgets and are under pressure from citizens to provide an array of public services. In an era when inequality is on the rise, lotteries appear to dangle the promise of instant riches. And there is, of course, the inextricable human urge to gamble.

In the past, states tended to see lotteries as a way of providing public services without raising taxes on working-class people. That arrangement worked reasonably well in the immediate post-World War II period, but it became increasingly untenable as the costs of providing public services began to grow rapidly. In addition, state governments were often plagued by competing priorities and competing interests.

Lotteries are a classic example of the difficulty of developing state-level policy that is consistent and integrated. Decisions about the lottery are made piecemeal and incrementally, with little oversight or general overview by legislative and executive branches. As a result, those in charge of implementing and managing the lottery are left with policies that they can only change intermittently. And those decisions are influenced by a host of external pressures that are difficult to manage, including the desire of states to increase revenues and compete with each other for gambling business. As a result, few, if any, states have a coherent “gambling policy” or even a lotteries policy. As a result, they end up with dependence on revenue sources that they can only increase with a great deal of political effort and expense. The resulting fiscal instability undermines public confidence in government. It is a serious concern that should be addressed with care. A number of states are currently attempting to do so. But it is a difficult task that will require both courage and creativity. In order to succeed, such reforms must focus on the underlying causes of fiscal instability, not just on the symptoms.