Lottery Commissions and Their Misleading Messages

Lottery Commissions and Their Misleading Messages


The lottery is a type of gambling in which people purchase chances to win money or prizes through random selection. It is a form of distribution that can be applied to a wide range of situations, including the allocation of public services such as housing, kindergarten placements and university acceptances, and it can also apply to financial markets and sports events. The term derives from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”), itself a diminutive of the noun houding (“place”). The first state-sponsored lotteries in Europe began in the early 15th century. The first English word for lottery was printed in 1569, a direct translation of the Dutch word, and the word has been in use in English since.

The lottery has a wide appeal as an effective means of raising funds, partly because it is easy to organize and popular with the public. Moreover, it can be structured to offer a large prize along with many smaller ones. The size of the prize depends on the number of tickets sold, and the total value of prizes is typically predetermined, with profits for the promoter and costs of promotion deducted from the pool.

In the United States, the largest prizes are offered by the state-sponsored Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries, which often have jackpots in the millions of dollars. The prize amounts of these lotteries can reach levels that attract considerable attention, generating publicity and increasing ticket sales.

One major message that lottery commissions rely on is that winning the lottery feels like an achievement, that it demonstrates you are on the path to success. This is a dangerous myth that obscures the regressivity of state-sponsored lotteries and contributes to their popularity among those who spend a significant portion of their incomes on tickets.

A second message that lottery commissions rely on is the idea that winning the lottery is good for state coffers. This is a misleading message that obscures the fact that lottery commissions have shifted away from their original mission of raising money for state programs.

The regressivity of state-sponsored lotteries can be illustrated by looking at the percentage of lottery proceeds that are allocated to a given program, the share that is awarded to the top winner, and the amount that is distributed to the bottom winners. In the case of the state-sponsored Powerball lottery, the top winner receives about 24 percent of the proceeds after federal taxes are paid. That is a substantial sum, but it does not cover the costs of running the lottery. The remaining 82 percent is shared by the bottom winners, with a small fraction being used for advertising and other administrative costs. This is a major reason why the lottery has become more like an addiction than a recreational activity.