Public Policy and the Alabama Lottery


The lottery is a game in which people buy tickets, either by marking numbers on paper or via machine, and win prizes when their selections match those that are randomly spit out by machines. It’s an arrangement that, despite its reliance on chance, often has a meritocratic feel to it. It’s an idea that, for a time, allowed state governments to expand their array of services without having to impose especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working classes.

But as this arrangement crumbled, states turned to the lottery for cash, and lotteries became a major source of revenue in a number of states, including Alabama. But the lottery raises important questions about the nature of public policymaking, as well as about the ethics of a practice that, if done correctly, can produce enormous sums of money for state governments and their constituents.

A state lottery can be a good way to raise funds for a variety of things, including education, roads and other infrastructure, and even the military. But the fact is that lotteries, by definition, are a form of gambling and that raises a host of ethical questions.

First, there’s the obvious: people simply like to gamble. It’s a human impulse that we can’t fully explain, but there it is. People have a natural desire to try their luck at winning the big prize, and a large percentage of those who play do win. This can be a problem, but it also means that a number of people are legitimately helped by the lottery.

Secondly, lotteries have become a kind of public service. They raise money for many kinds of public needs, but they’re often criticized for being a “hidden tax.” This isn’t exactly true, and it’s important to understand why the criticism exists. But it does point to a basic issue with the lottery: the fact is that the vast majority of its proceeds come from middle-class neighborhoods, while the poor do not participate at all or in proportionally large amounts.

Third, lottery revenues typically rise dramatically at the outset of a new game, then level off and sometimes decline. This pattern has led to a frantic pace of innovation, as officials introduce ever-new games in an attempt to maintain or increase those revenues.

All of these issues have made it harder to assess whether the lottery is a net benefit for state governments and the communities they serve. Unlike most other public policy, lottery decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall perspective. Moreover, lottery officials are often isolated from their legislators and even from other lottery officials in the same state, making it difficult for them to coordinate with or rely on a broader community of lottery professionals.