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Lottery: The Evolution of State Policy


The lottery is a game of chance in which people buy tickets with specific numbers. Those with the correct numbers are awarded prizes. Lotteries are a form of gambling and have been around for thousands of years.

The odds of winning are remarkably slight, but they’re certainly tempting for many players. Millions of dollars are won every year, and the risk-to-reward ratio is appealing for many. But if you’re looking for a low-risk way to invest your money, the lottery is probably not the best place.

Lottery: The Evolution of State Policy

As lottery operations have evolved, debate and criticism have focused on the alleged problems with compulsive gambling and a regressive impact on lower-income populations. These criticisms both reflect and drive the ongoing evolution of state lotteries.

A state lottery evolves in a largely uniform manner: legislatures legislate a monopoly for the lottery; establish a state agency or public corporation to run it; begin operation with a relatively small number of simple games; and expand the operation, adding new games and attempting to generate more revenue.

Once the lottery has been established, revenues generally grow dramatically at first and then level off or decline over time. This “boredom” factor prompts a constant pressure on the lottery to introduce new games to maintain or increase its revenue, and a general effort to attract new players through advertising.

This dynamic has produced an industry that has a broad appeal, especially among the general public, but which can create extensive constituencies, including vendors (usually convenience stores) who sell lottery tickets; suppliers of prize-winner prizes (in those states in which revenues are earmarked for education); teachers and other professionals, and state legislators. In all, the growth of state lottery revenue has led to a complex and fragmented public policy that is frequently difficult for the public to understand or control.