Social Responsibility and the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which players purchase chances for a prize, typically money or goods. The practice of casting lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, from the Old Testament to the game played at Benjamin Franklin’s dinner parties for his American colonial guests, and eventually the distribution of state-sponsored prizes of cash or goods that are awarded through chance (and sometimes by skill).

Lotteries operate as businesses and are run as private enterprises, meaning their advertising is designed to maximize revenues. But they also rely on the fact that many people are prone to impulse spending and that they are particularly vulnerable to marketing techniques that encourage them to gamble. The result has been controversy over whether the lottery is socially responsible. Some critics point to the alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups; others point to the tendency of many lottery advertisements to present misleading information about odds and other aspects of the game.

Historically, the principal argument for adopting a lottery has focused on its value as a source of “painless” revenue: that is, as a way to raise funds that would be less desirable to impose through taxes or cutbacks in other public programs. But studies show that this premise is flawed: the popularity of state lotteries is independent of the actual fiscal condition of the government. The vast majority of lottery revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods, while low-income residents participate at proportionally smaller levels.