When the state has an urgent need for money — for building highways or repairing schools, for instance — it can create a lottery. A lot of people will buy tickets, and a lucky few will win big. And the rest of the ticket holders will feel good about supporting their public services. This is the message that state lotteries are selling, and it’s a compelling one.
But the reality is that state lotteries have much wider social implications. They are widely criticized for promoting addictive gambling behavior, acting as a major regressive tax on low-income groups, and creating other forms of abuse. Critics also argue that the way lotteries are run – with the focus on maximizing revenue – puts them at cross-purposes with the state’s duty to protect its citizens’ welfare.
In the immediate post-World War II period, the lottery was popular because it allowed states to expand their services without raising the taxes that would have hurt working people and middle class families. But as the economy has changed, the popularity of the lottery has dipped. It may be that the lottery is a victim of its own success: By becoming increasingly lucrative, it has drawn more and more people into a gambling habit, increasing addiction rates and generating other problems. As a result, critics have been able to raise serious questions about the appropriate role of the state in regulating and funding it.