Public Relations and the Lottery

The practice of making decisions or determining fates by casting lots has a long and varied history in human society. It is a key feature of the biblical account of land distribution, and Roman emperors used lotteries to distribute goods during Saturnalian dinner parties. Lotteries as a means of raising public funds have a more recent origin, and the growth of lottery games has been driven by state governments’ desire for increased revenue.

Lotteries generate considerable public controversy. They are frequently criticized for promoting unrealistic expectations of wealth, inflating the value of prize money (most lotto jackpots are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with taxes and inflation dramatically eroding the current value), targeting poorer individuals, creating opportunities for compulsive gambling, and more. The controversy is not necessarily about the fact that people like to gamble, but rather about how much gambling exacerbates already existing problems.

Many states have argued that the proceeds of their lotteries are devoted to a particular public good such as education, but this argument is not supported by studies that show the popularity of the lottery is not related to the objective fiscal condition of a state’s government. Instead, lotteries are generally approved by citizens as a “civic duty” to support the state’s welfare programs, even when these benefits have been largely decoupled from the lottery’s actual funding sources. In the long run, this has fueled a continuous expansion of the lottery’s offerings, and it has also contributed to concerns about the impact on lower-income households.