Lottery Participation and Concerns


The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long history in human affairs, as documented by references to it in many ancient documents, including the Bible. Lotteries as an instrument of public finance have a much shorter record of antiquity, however, with the first state lottery being established in 1612.

State governments grant themselves exclusive monopoly rights to run lotteries and then use the proceeds for a variety of purposes. In the United States, the majority of state lottery revenues are earmarked for education, and lottery profits are also used for townships, highways, prisons, and other public works projects. Lottery participation is widespread, with more than half of adults reporting playing at least once in the past year. The NORC found that high-school graduates, those living in low-income households, and men are the most frequent lottery players. Those who play frequently (more than once a week) are more likely to be African-American, while women and those with higher incomes play less often.

A common strategy to increase the odds of winning a lottery is to select all of the numbers that appear on the ticket. There is some evidence that this method increases the chances of winning a jackpot, although it is not clear whether the numbers are selected randomly or by some pattern. There are also strategies that seek to reduce the likelihood of choosing a winning combination by eliminating certain numbers, for example those with consecutive or ones that end in the same digit. For instance, Richard Lustig, a lottery winner who played for two years before winning $7 million in 2010, advised against selecting numbers that are close to each other or based on a particular pattern.

In the NORC survey, 27% of respondents cited insufficient prize money as their biggest concern about the lottery, while other concerns included underage gambling (12%) and improper use of lottery funds (11%). The majority of survey participants agreed that it was important to have an emergency fund before participating in a lottery, and they were more likely to play if they knew the proceeds would go toward a specific cause rather than the state general fund.

The earliest lotteries were conducted for the purpose of raising capital for a venture or for public goods, but they soon began to be used to raise money for private benefit as well. For example, George Washington ran a lottery in 1768 to help finance the construction of the Mountain Road through Virginia, and Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to pay for cannons during the American Revolution. As the popularity of lottery games increased, more state governments legalized them and established a hierarchy of agents who sold tickets for profit. The result was that the lottery became a classic example of public policy evolving incrementally, and with little or no overall oversight. In addition, the resulting dependence on revenue shifted the authority of lottery officials away from the legislative and executive branches of government.