The Popularity of the Lottery

Lottery is a game that appeals to people’s desire to dream big. It also taps into our basic misunderstanding of how rare it is to win. If lottery participants were really good at math, they would know that they’re paying a high price for a low chance of winning, and that it makes no sense to buy tickets if you don’t have the money already.

State-sponsored lotteries are a popular way for states to raise funds for various public purposes, including education. The public is generally supportive of the idea because it is perceived as a painless form of taxation. Historically, many state-sponsored lotteries have followed similar models: they legislate a monopoly for themselves; select a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a share of profits); start operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, as revenues increase, progressively introduce new games to maintain and grow their revenue base.

The public’s overall desirability of the lottery is not, however, related to its economic health, as lotteries are overwhelmingly popular in times of both recession and prosperity. The popularity of the lottery is instead primarily driven by the degree to which its proceeds are perceived as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. This argument is particularly powerful when the public is worried about a government’s financial situation, but it has also proved effective when the state is in comparatively robust fiscal shape.