All but six states now rely on profits from lotteries for as much as 8 percent of their official revenue. A little-known secret is that many states also rely on something else to lure people to gamble and to keep revenue flowing: publicizing the names, even the faces and locations, of the biggest winners.
This practice of exploiting winners for publicity is often justified as necessary to prevent the impression of fraud in state lotteries, or that officials might have been keeping the money. Yet the transparency, which may seem right for government, also has subjected many big winners to scam artists, greedy distant relatives, or even violence. And as digital media makes it easier to track down winners, a number of states are debating measures to give winners a choice of privacy, or at least to delay their exposure to the pressures of sudden wealth until they can protect themselves. Only a few states now grant anonymity as a rule.
Such reform would be helpful, but it misses a bigger point. Should government even be in the gambling business?
Lotteries can compromise important civic values, such as government transparency. They serve as a regressive tax on the poor, who are the main buyers of tickets. And they worsen the social effects of problem gamblers. In Massachusetts, for example, the state plans to use 2 percent of its revenues from casinos now being developed to cope with problem gambling. To deal with its casinos, the small state of Connecticut offers free treatment for gambling addiction at more than a dozen locations.
Lottery revenues are also a fickle source for states to count on. Last year, total revenue from sales of lottery tickets did not rise much from the year before, reaching $70 billion. Those sales yielded nearly $20 billion in total net proceeds to the District of Columbia and the 44 states that have lotteries.
Lotteries reinforce a superstitious belief in luck as a path to easy riches, just the opposite of what government does in providing education and other tools to tap each individual’s talents and hard work. In one 2006 survey, more than a third of Americans earning less than $25,000 said the most practical path to wealth was to buy a lottery ticket.
In the African country of Gambia, the ill effects from all types of gambling led to a complete ban this month. “Gambian society has been built on the foundations of promoting positive social values like thrift and integrity rather than negative ones like greed and avarice,” the government stated.
Luck, as many people view it, may not be a matter of chance, fate, or randomness, according to research by Richard Wiseman, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain and author of the 2003 book “The Luck Factor.” He studied some 400 people who considered themselves either lucky or unlucky and found those who say they are lucky had these consistent traits: They were grateful for past successes and expected good things to happen. They were resilient about their difficulties, listened to their intuition, and were alert to opportunities.
If government wants to be in the business of promoting winners in society, it should look to people with those attributes – with their permission, of course.