Are lotteries legitimate means of financing public needs?
February 1986

“Are lotteries legitimate means of financing public needs?” Ensign, Feb. 1986, 32–34

Are lotteries legitimate means of financing public needs?

William D. Oswald, an attorney and regional representative. Lotteries are a form of gambling in which people buy numbered tickets. Winners are determined at random. Absolutely no skill is involved in picking the winning numbers and only a few—sometimes only one individual—will win a prize. The prizes, however, are big because the chances of winning are so small—sometimes no more than 1 in 3.5 million!

Because of the large revenues generated by lotteries, even public lotteries designed to support charities have been used for private greed. In the past, criminals have used lottery money to bribe public officials, to corrupt newspapers, to control banks, and to suppress opposition with lavish payoffs. In the U.S., for example, the last big lottery was so corrupt and such a national disgrace that federal laws were enacted to stop it.

There is now a trend by governments, especially those which find themselves in financial trouble, to legalize this form of gambling as a means of financing certain public purposes. These state-supported lotteries are set up to collect monies for such public purposes as meeting the needs of the elderly or financing education. Colorado’s lottery profits go to state parks, Pennsylvania’s go to senior citizens, and Arizona’s go to transportation. Lotteries have now been made legal in twenty-two states in the United States, and proposals have been introduced in Congress for a national lottery, which, advocates claim, could quickly and painlessly raise several billion dollars a year to reduce the growing federal deficit.

With the lottery issue becoming more and more a topic for public debate, Latter-day Saints should ask themselves: Is it now appropriate for government to finance public needs through lotteries, when for most of our history gambling was punished as a vice?

The words of Jesus remind us that before undertaking certain activities, it is appropriate for one to sit down first, and count the cost. (See Luke 14:28.) Before supporting any legislation which would legalize or extend lotteries as a means of financing the needs of the public, Latter-day Saints should address the following questions.

1. What Is the Cost to Society?

The Doctrine and Covenants teaches us “that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.” (D&C 134:1.)

It doesn’t take much research to show that a state-sponsored lottery doesn’t benefit mankind or protect the good and safety of society; it hurts them. Indeed, the cost of state sponsored lotteries, in moral and human terms, is extremely high.

All gambling, even legalized gambling, is parasitic because it creates no economic goods and no real wealth. At most, it merely takes money away from many and gives it to a few. Lotteries discourage thrift, and the publicity given the winners encourages even more people to throw their money away in pursuit of the illusion of instant wealth. Thinking they can get what they want without working for it, people lose sight of the work ethic and begin looking for the mythical “easy road to wealth.” There’s some indication, in fact, that legalizing gambling increases its illegal forms by stimulating the demand for all types of gambling.1

Ultimately the taxpayers pick up the real costs of government-sponsored lotteries by paying the price for lost jobs, broken families, and the impoverishment, crime, and violence often brought on by compulsive gambling.

2. What Is the Cost to the State?

Lotteries are an extremely expensive way to raise money. In one state, it is estimated that up to two-thirds of the total lottery sales are taken out before anything goes to finance public needs; thus, only one-third of the dollars of lottery sales are used to meet public needs.2

Furthermore, study after study indicates that it is the poor who most heavily patronize lotteries. The economically disadvantaged—those who feel trapped in a cycle of unemployment and welfare—are the first to look to lotteries as their one big chance to reverse the fortunes of life. The very people who can least afford to buy tickets are the very ones who purchase most of the tickets. In this sense, lotteries transfer the cost of government services to those who can least afford it.

One of America’s foremost students of gambling concludes: “As a revenue source, the state lottery is one of the most regressive taxes known and imposes by far the heaviest relative burden on those least able to pay.”3

The landmark United States Government study on gambling entitled “Gambling in America” concurs: “The Lottery is one of the more regressive forms of gambling—that is, people in the low income categories spend proportionately more on it than those in the highest income brackets. The money for the lottery comes most from those who can least afford it, worsening their conditions and making them more dependent on aid from the taxpayers.”4

How self-defeating for government to help the disadvantaged on the one hand, and then take money from them by exploiting their hopes on the other hand.

One of the ironic features of state lotteries is that if they were subject to consumer protection laws, most would be declared illegal. The Wall Street Journal carried an article not long ago entitled “State Lotteries: The Only Legal Swindle.” After dissecting the misleading nature of lottery advertising, the article ended with this penetrating comment: “It is ironic that today not even the sleaziest moneylender is permitted to do things that state lotteries do as a matter of routine.”5

Senator Durenberger of Minnesota, chairman of a United States Senate Committee which held hearings on the conduct of state lotteries, recently concluded: “You can’t run a successful lottery by telling the whole truth. You need hard sell promotion, often vague and misleading about the odds and the prizes. That enterprise of parting the sucker from his dollar is questionable enough in the free marketplace; it’s no business for a state or federal government whose purpose is to serve and protect the people.”6

3. What Is the Cost to the Individual?

It should come as no surprise that the growth of lotteries has been accompanied by a sharp rise in the number of compulsive gamblers.7 Like any activity that produces hopes and anticipation, gambling can become addictive.

In 1979, Johns Hopkins University became the first major medical center in the United States to establish a Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center. Psychiatrists report an increasing number of pathological gamblers who are seeking medical help for habits that have gotten out of control. “Gambling,” says one person who counsels compulsive gamblers, “is an equal opportunity destroyer.”8

There are no verifiable figures on the total number of compulsive gamblers in the U.S., but all reliable estimates suggest that at least two and maybe as high as eight million people in the United States are addicted to gambling. It cuts across all lines, and experts say it’s getting worse.

Lotteries only exacerbate the problem. The president of the National Foundation on the Study and Treatment of Pathological Gambling says that lotteries may serve to introduce gambling to those who otherwise would shun it. “People who have never bet before, seeing a state-run lottery with the imprimatur of government upon it, might buy a ticket,” he says. “Buying the first lottery ticket might be compared to a future drug addict taking his first puff on a cigarette. It’s a starting point.”9

4. What Have the Prophets Said about the Cost of Gambling?

Latter-day prophets such as President Brigham Young and President Lorenzo Snow have spoken out against gambling.10 President Joseph F. Smith raised his voice against the evils of gambling,11 and in 1925, President Heber J. Grant and his counselors warned the Saints against this vice when they said, “The Church has been and now is unalterably opposed to gambling in any form.”12

As recently as October 1985, President Gordon B. Hinckley reaffirmed the position of the Church against lotteries when he said, “There can be no question about the moral ramification of this practice. A lottery is a form of gambling.”13

Ultimately, the decision about a lottery is a question of moral values and involves decisions regarding the kind of religious, social, and cultural environment in which we want to live.

If we look at people through the eyes of Jesus of Nazareth, we must see our fellow citizens not as potential lottery customers to be exploited, but as children of a common father whose “worth … is great in the sight of God.” (D&C 18:10.)

Jesus loved the individual. His teachings are founded upon the principle that each individual has merit in the eyes of God and should be treated with dignity and compassion. Jesus had compassion on the poor and needy. He healed their wounds and restored the fallen. He taught that human life is to be used to further God’s work, which is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)

Gambling degrades human dignity and saps moral strength as it promotes a philosophy of getting something for nothing. Gambling takes more out of society than it puts in, impoverishing the many and enriching the few.

Lotteries have no place in an enlightened society. It is morally wrong for a state or a nation to exploit the weaknesses of its citizens through sponsorship of lotteries. On the contrary, government should act to restrict gambling, not encourage or sponsor it. That some governments now promote what they once enforced as being unlawful or illegal is symptomatic of a syndrome of greed and covetousness and reflects a deterioration of public and political morality. It is time for members of the Church to voice their concern to legislators and government leaders to say that the whole lottery scheme is so gross in its human toll that public policy requires that lotteries be prohibited.


  1. Christian Science Monitor, 15 July 1985.

  2. California Proposition 37, The State Lottery Initiative. See Don’t Gamble with California’s Future pamphlet, Coalition Against Legalizing Lotteries, Inc., 1984, p. 4.

  3. Daniel B. Suits, in Don’t Gamble with California’s Future, p. 8.

  4. Final Report of the Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling, Government Printing Office, 1976.

  5. Wall Street Journal, 14 June 1984.

  6. Remarks by Senator David Durenberger to the U.S. Senate subcommittee, Oct. 1984, quoted in Deseret News.

  7. Christian Science Monitor, 12 July 1985.

  8. John Steele quoted in Christian Science Monitor, 12 July 1985.

  9. Robert L. Custer quoted in Christian Science Monitor, 12 July 1985.

  10. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, pp. 326–27.

  11. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., comp. Bruce R. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3:304–6.

  12. Improvement Era, Sept. 1926, p. 1100.

  13. Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 52.