Lottery Politics


Many state governments have adopted lotteries in the last few decades, providing new sources of revenue for services such as education, roads and prisons. Initially, the games gained broad popular support. After all, they offered a way for government to expand its array of services without heavy taxation on the middle and lower classes. That broad support has waned over time, however. Lottery revenues have plateaued, forcing the industry to seek out new products and strategies in order to grow. The resulting expansion has also produced extensive specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (the usual lottery vendors); suppliers of scratch-off tickets (heavy contributions by these suppliers to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers, in states where lotteries’ proceeds are earmarked for education; and state legislators (who quickly come to depend on the extra income).

The principal argument that lottery advocates use to win support is that winnings will be spent on a particular public good, such as education. This appeal is particularly effective during times of economic stress, when voters fear a rise in taxes or cuts in public services. Yet studies have found that the actual fiscal conditions of state governments do not appear to influence whether or when lotteries are adopted.

The best advice for lottery players, says Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman, is to choose random numbers or Quick Picks rather than significant ones such as birthdays or ages. That’s because such numbers tend to have patterns that other people are likely to repeat, making them less unbiased than numbers such as 1-3-6-9.