The Lottery and Its Critics


As an alternative to taxes, lotteries appeal to the public by promising prizes that depend on chance. Prizes range from a free vacation to a new car. People have always been attracted to this type of gambling, which is why the first state-sponsored lottery was launched in New Hampshire in 1964 and was quickly followed by others in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

State governments defended lotteries by arguing that they provide painless revenue without burdening voters with additional tax increases. In addition, they promote the games as a way to fund education and other social services without resorting to general taxes, which are politically sensitive.

The argument is based on the idea that the more unlikely it is to win, the better the odds are, and that the resulting excitement of the game encourages players to spend money they otherwise would not have. Lotteries also attract a wide variety of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (whose machines are the primary sales outlets for tickets); suppliers to the industry (heavy contributions by these firms to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers, since many states use lottery revenues to subsidize their schools; and, most important, politicians, whose support is essential to lotteries’ continued existence.

But, despite the widespread popularity of these games, some observers are concerned about their long-term impact. For instance, critics point out that lottery revenues tend to increase as the economy shrinks; as wages decline, unemployment grows, and poverty rates rise; as household income falls, the percentage of people playing the lottery disproportionately increases; and as the value of a jackpot is eroded by inflation over time.

Moreover, there is some evidence that the lottery has become a form of racial and class discrimination: In most states, blacks and low-income whites participate in the lottery at disproportionately lower levels than their shares of the population, while middle-class whites play it more often than any other group. Lottery advertising is disproportionately concentrated in poor, black, and inner-city neighborhoods, where the majority of lottery participants live.

Finally, there is some evidence that the randomness of the lottery is compromised by patterns and “hot spots” in the number distribution. For example, the numbers that appear more frequently on winning tickets are usually grouped together in clusters and, in some cases, end with the same letter. The best way to avoid these patterns is to study the past results of a given lottery and try to identify the most frequent numbers. Also, pay special attention to the number of times a particular digit appears on the ticket; if it shows up multiple times, that is a good sign. This type of analysis can be done with a computer program that analyzes the winning ticket data and identifies repeating numbers. These programs can be purchased from software providers. They are not expensive, but can be difficult to master. Nevertheless, there are some people who claim to have mastered these programs and can predict which numbers will be drawn most often.