The Pros and Cons of Legalizing the Lottery


In recent decades, lottery jackpots have skyrocketed and ensnared many who would never otherwise gamble. It’s a game that combines chance with the appeal of big payouts, and its allure has drawn people from all walks of life. Even those who don’t normally gamble have been known to buy a ticket for a record-breaking jackpot, like the $586 million Powerball prize in January 2016. The lottery is now a major source of revenue for states and a key part of their social safety nets, despite the objections of religious and secular groups.

But while the lottery’s popularity has grown, its roots go back much further. Lotteries are mentioned in the Bible, and they were common throughout the ancient world. The casting of lots was used for everything from distributing slaves to selecting the king of Israel, and it also played a role in the early colonization of America, where lottery games were often used as a way of generating revenue to pay for services such as education and public parks.

Today, lottery revenues support a range of government programs, and some states are beginning to experiment with using them to fund pensions and other benefits for retirees. But while many politicians are now eager to embrace the potential of the lottery, there is still no consensus on whether it’s a good or bad idea. Some people think that it’s a good way to provide a safety net for older citizens, while others fear that it will undermine moral standards and increase gambling addiction among the young.

Regardless of their position on the issue, many lawmakers are reluctant to raise taxes or cut other government services to boost lottery funding. This has made it difficult to pass a constitutional amendment legalizing the game. But legalization advocates have come up with new strategies to sell it. Instead of arguing that a lottery will float a state’s budget, they now claim it will fund a specific line item, usually a popular service that is nonpartisan and intangible-like education, elder care, or public parks.

This approach has also helped defuse long-standing ethical concerns about the lottery, arguing that if people are going to gamble anyway, it’s a small price for governments to collect the profits. But it’s not foolproof, and it hasn’t eliminated criticism of the lottery from some conservatives.