The Lottery – Is It Legal?

The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America, with people spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year. While state lotteries raise money for a variety of public uses, they also have the potential to undermine economic opportunities and lead to negative effects on poor and problem gamblers, among others. Given these alleged harms, the legitimacy of the practice deserves close scrutiny.

The distribution of property, slaves, and other assets by lot has a long and storied history, with dozens of instances in the Bible and countless Roman lotteries to give away property during Saturnalian celebrations. In the 16th century, Francis I of France discovered lotteries in Italy and attempted to introduce them to his kingdom. But the tickets were expensive and the upper classes that could afford them opposed the scheme, so it was eventually abolished.

More recently, the lottery has become a popular way for states to raise revenue. Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia operate lotteries, raising more than $10 billion in 2021 alone. Whether the revenues from these games are well spent and should be promoted is debated, however, particularly because many of the newest games are designed to maximize profits for their manufacturers.

Lotteries are not the only form of gambling, but are one of the oldest, most widespread, and most legally sanctioned. Historically, these operations have been regulated by the government to ensure that their profits are used appropriately. Modern lottery advertising necessarily focuses on persuading the target audience to spend their money, despite the fact that a lottery ticket is a gambling product wherein an individual must pay for the chance to win.

In the United States, a state must meet several criteria to establish a legal lottery: create an independent agency or public corporation to run it; legislate for a monopoly on the sale of tickets; begin with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, in response to pressure to increase revenues, progressively expand its game offerings, especially by adding new types of games.

Although many states promote their lotteries by claiming that they benefit a broad range of social welfare activities, the truth is that most of these games are largely self-serving, with the biggest winners being the manufacturers and retailers of the newer high-profit games. Studies have found that players of state lottery games, including scratch tickets and daily numbers, come disproportionately from middle-income neighborhoods and far less from low-income ones. Moreover, these players are significantly more likely than others to have serious gambling problems. These facts should prompt lawmakers to reconsider the legality and ethical integrity of promoting this particular type of gambling.