Public Welfare and the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling where people try to win a prize by chance. It has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. Its use for material gain, however, is rather more recent and is found mainly in the West. Its popularity has been fueled by the fact that its winnings can be used to improve public welfare, especially in education.

State lotteries typically follow similar structures: they legislate a monopoly for themselves; establish a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); start operations with a relatively modest prize; and then promote their games by offering flashy promotions and large jackpots. This strategy has proven successful, with lotteries drawing substantial levels of public approval and revenues. In most states, the public is allowed to vote in a referendum on the lottery and can express its views at the ballot box.

The state controller’s office determines how much the lottery contributes to each county’s schools based on average daily attendance for K-12 school districts and full-time enrollment for community colleges and other specialized institutions. The lottery contributes over $1 billion to education each year.

While the lottery’s success is largely due to its promotion of high-profile jackpots, it has also been helped by the way it structures the distribution of its prizes. A big prize is more appealing to the masses than a smaller one, and it makes sense from a business point of view to keep the top prize growing until it becomes newsworthy. In addition, larger prizes draw a large amount of free publicity from newscasts and web sites, further increasing ticket sales and public interest.

A variety of strategies are employed to prevent tampering with winning tickets. One method is to print matching, coded numbers on both the front and back of each ticket. Another is to use a special opaque covering that conceals the lottery number. However, this does not completely prevent candling, delamination and wicking, which involve using solvents to force the lottery number to bleed through the concealing coating.

A number of questions arise about the operation of state lotteries, including whether they are at cross-purposes with the state’s wider public welfare goals. A further issue is the manner in which they are established: Lottery legislation typically is made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight. Moreover, state officials must compete with private firms to lure players and promote their games, so they are likely to be attracted to strategies that may have negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers.