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Public Policy and the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling where players purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize. It is popular in many cultures and is a source of billions in revenue annually. It is usually operated by state governments or private companies. Some lotteries feature only one large prize while others offer a variety of smaller prizes. A percentage of ticket sales is normally earmarked for costs and profits, with the remainder available to winners. In order to attract players, prizes must be attractive and the rules must provide a fair and reasonable balance between the frequency of drawing and the size of the prizes.

In addition to the monetary value of winning, lotteries also provide entertainment and social status. Many people play the lottery for fun, but some have come to believe that it is their only hope for a better life. Whether or not they are rational about their chances of winning, these people are making the best choice for them based on their beliefs and expectations.

Lottery is a classic example of the way in which public policy develops. Typically, decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. The evolution of state lotteries is particularly striking in this regard. It seems that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not have much impact on how a lottery is established, or how much approval it receives. As a result, lotteries often establish extensive specific constituencies: convenience store operators (the usual vendors for lotteries); suppliers of merchandise (heavy contributions by these suppliers to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which revenues are earmarked for education); etc.