Who Wins the Lottery?


The casting of lots to make decisions or to determine fates has a long record, including several instances in the Bible. State lotteries began in the modern era with New Hampshire in 1964, and most states have adopted them since then. They are controversial because they are a form of gambling, and critics charge that they promote addictive gambling behavior, are a significant regressive tax on the poor, and raise concerns about government corruption.

State officials are faced with an inherent conflict between their desire to increase revenues and their duty to protect the public welfare. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them are reluctant to take the risk of exposing themselves to the criticisms that are attached to lotteries.

While the lottery does have some popularity with the general public, it also has specific constituencies whose loyalty to the game is quite strong: convenience store operators (whose business depends on the volume of lottery sales); suppliers to the lottery (heavy contributions by them to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in those states in which the revenues are earmarked for education); and of course, players themselves. Research suggests that the bulk of lottery participants are middle-income, and a much smaller proportion are either high-income or low-income. This is in sharp contrast to the patterns of other forms of gambling. Those who play the lottery are often irrational, spend more than they can afford to lose, and are delusional about their chances of winning.

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