Is it Right For Governments to Promote Gambling?

Throughout history, people have been willing to hazard a small sum of money in exchange for the chance to win a large one. The lottery is one way governments have raised the funds necessary to carry out a variety of projects, from building roads and bridges to funding higher education and even medical research. But lotteries are not without their problems, and one of them is the fact that they disproportionately attract low-income individuals and minorities, who may be more susceptible to gambling addiction. Then there’s the question of whether it is appropriate for state governments to promote gambling, particularly when doing so could have negative societal consequences.

In the 17th century, the Dutch began holding public lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes. By the 19th century, the idea of states adopting a public lottery had caught on, and the prevailing argument was that it was a painless form of taxation: voters voluntarily spend their dollars in return for a modest chance of winning big.

But there are serious concerns about the growth of the lottery industry, mainly that it takes state coffers away from programs that could be more effectively funded with other means. For example, by purchasing lottery tickets, people divert billions that they could be saving for retirement or their children’s college tuition.

While most Americans play the lottery, there is a significant skew in participation by socioeconomic groups, with men playing more than women and lower-income individuals and minorities playing more than those with more incomes. In addition, lottery play tends to decrease with formal education.