Is the Lottery Bad For Public Policy?

The lottery is a form of gambling where people pay a small sum for a chance to win a large prize. Its popularity has made it an important source of revenue for government programs. But critics say that the lottery taints public policy by promoting irrational gambling habits and by unfairly targeting lower-income groups.

Despite these concerns, state lotteries have gained broad popular support and a high degree of stability. The principal argument that state governments use to promote their lotteries is that they provide a source of “painless” revenue: taxpayers spend money on tickets, and the proceeds benefit specific public services. This argument is particularly effective when a state faces the prospect of tax increases or budget cuts.

After the initial expansion of a lottery, however, revenues level off and may even begin to decline. To keep up revenues, state lotteries introduce new games. In the past, these innovations typically consisted of instant-win scratch-off tickets that had a much smaller prize amount than a traditional drawing and higher odds of winning, but they have now evolved into a variety of games with increasingly high prizes.

Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman says that many people choose lottery numbers based on significant dates, such as birthdays and ages, or sequences like 1-2-3-4-5-6. But he says these are bad ideas because they tend to have patterns that other players will also pick, meaning you have a smaller chance of winning. Instead, he recommends buying Quick Picks, which have a set of random numbers.