The Lottery is a Gamble


A lottery is a game of chance. Unless you happen to be one of the few people who is irrationally drawn to a sliver of hope, it’s not likely that you’re going to win. But for many people, winning the lottery feels like their last, best, or only shot at life.

That’s why lottery sales spike when incomes fall and unemployment rises, and why they are heavily promoted in neighborhoods disproportionately populated by the poor, black, or Latino. Lottery defenses often posit that people don’t understand the odds or they enjoy the game anyway, but those arguments are both misleading and wrong. The truth is that a lottery ticket is a financial gamble, and most of us are indifferent to its actual probabilities.

The modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, as growing awareness of the big money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state finances. For many states, particularly those with generous social safety nets, balancing the budget became more difficult in the wake of rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. Increasing taxes or cutting services was unpopular with voters. Lotteries, which had been legalized in the Northeast and the Rust Belt, were seen as a way to boost state coffers without burdening the working classes.

In the early days of the lottery, winners were chosen by drawing lots from a hat. The ancients used to do the same thing with bones, coins, and other items, and the casting of lots is a staple of divination, from choosing kings in the Roman Empire (Nero was an avid player) to picking the next prophet in the Bible. By the fourteenth century, the practice had spread to the Low Countries, which raised money for town fortifications and other public works through the sale of tickets that could be redeemed for a variety of prizes, including land, slaves, and even freedom itself.

Lottery proponents still believe that they are selling the same story today, though it has lost some of its luster. Instead of arguing that the lottery will float most of a state’s budget, they now promote it as a means to fund a specific line item—usually education, but occasionally elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This tack allows them to frame the issue in a manner that appeals to people’s emotions and aspirations.

But as Cohen points out, most states’ lotteries generate only about two per cent of total state revenues, which isn’t enough to offset a reduction in taxes or significantly bolster government spending. In addition, the message that lotteries are a good way to support vital public goods is undercut by the fact that, on average, lottery players spend about a percent of their annual income on tickets. The more the odds of winning increase, the fewer dollars are left over for other purposes. Lotteries have a lot to answer for.