Lottery Promotions and State Budgets


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize a state or national lottery. The latter have grown in popularity, especially during economic crisis and when states are seeking new sources of revenue. Yet studies show that the public’s enthusiasm for lotteries is not connected to a state government’s actual fiscal health.

Most state governments outsource their lottery operations, but some retain control over the selection of retailers and the distribution of promotional materials. These agencies also administer the rules and regulations that govern how the games are played. In the United States, there are 48 states that operate lotteries. Several private companies also run nationwide lotteries, such as Powerball and Mega Millions. Those consortiums typically share the cost of advertising.

Lotteries are promoted by the state as an alternative to taxation, with players voluntarily spending their money in return for the chance to win a prize. That argument is appealing in an anti-tax era when voters may fear state budget cuts and increased taxes. But, as one expert explains, lottery promotions often work at cross-purposes with the larger goals of state government. State officials and elected representatives must balance the desire for lottery revenues with the need to manage a gambling operation that is a business whose goal is to maximize profits by persuading people to spend their money on it.

Moreover, the promotion of the lottery has a dark side. It entices people into coveting things they cannot afford. The Bible forbids coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that is his” (Exodus 20:17). People who play the lottery are lured into this trap by promises that they will be able to buy what they need and desire through the jackpot prizes. But those hopes are empty, as Ecclesiastes teaches.

The growth of lotteries in the US has been fueled by an increasingly competitive environment, as states seek to attract more participants and boost their sales and profits. This has led to new games, such as keno and video poker, as well as increased marketing and promotion. In addition, many lotteries have moved away from the traditional model of selling tickets at retailers to using direct mail and the Internet to sell their products. This has contributed to rising levels of problem gambling. As a result, some experts have called for the creation of a federal agency to regulate all forms of lotteries. Others have advocated that the state should reduce its promotion of them. Regardless of whether the lottery is regulated, there are questions about the morality of government at any level profiting from an activity that has negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers.