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The Public Interest and the Lottery


The lottery is a state-run contest wherein participants purchase tickets that have a random chance of winning big bucks. It can also refer to any contest whose winners are chosen by chance, such as finding true love or getting hit by lightning.

The first lottery in America raised money for the Virginia Company. In colonial-era America, it was common to hold a lottery for everything from paving streets to building wharves to funding universities and churches. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, though that venture failed.

In the United States, most states have lotteries and offer a variety of games, including scratch cards, daily games with pick-three numbers, and other multi-million dollar jackpots. These lotteries are run as businesses, with a primary goal of maximizing revenues through advertising. As such, they promote gambling to the public and rely on a variety of marketing tactics that disproportionately attract low-income residents and problem gamblers.

The evolution of state lotteries is a classic example of how the establishment of an industry often occurs at cross-purposes with other state policies. As the industry grows, decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally with little or no overall policy oversight, and a dependence on lottery revenues is built into the state’s structure. The result is that officials inherit policies and an industry at cross-purposes with the general public interest. The only way to change this is to make a concerted effort to promote the fact that the public’s best interests are better served by reshaping how lottery proceeds are used.