The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is one of the most enduring and ubiquitous forms of gambling. It’s been around for centuries, with the Old Testament citing Moses’ instruction to divide land by lot, and Roman emperors using the practice to give away property and slaves. It was brought to America by British colonists, and while many criticized it as immoral and degrading, by the nineteenth century state lotteries were a common fixture on the landscape.

The lottery has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its undeniable appeal to human ingenuity. It’s not just that people plain old like to gamble; it’s the idea that if you play enough and luck strikes, your entire life could change for the better. People want to get rich, and the lottery provides a way of doing so without spending years in a rigor mortis-like job or getting into debt.

Despite this, the odds of winning are so dismally long that people still play it. In fact, as the prizes have become larger and more numerous—and in some cases resemble real money—the odds of winning have actually decreased. That’s because it’s harder to win a million dollars than a thousand thousand, and the odds of winning one-hundred-million are much smaller than those of winning a hundred-million.

This, of course, is the point: the more a jackpot grows, the lower the chance that anyone will actually win it. To be fair, it’s also true that the vast majority of players don’t have any idea how to play the lottery in a rational way; they have quote-unquote systems that are completely unfounded in statistical reasoning, and they go to certain stores and times of day and choose particular numbers. But they all know that the odds are long, and they’re willing to put up with those long odds for a chance at wealth that may be, for some of them, their last, best, or only shot at a better life.

As the lottery’s popularity grew, it became increasingly evident that its proponents were selling a false dream. The truth was that, while lotteries did indeed bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, they couldn’t float a state’s budget. In the nineteen-sixties, as states began struggling to balance budgets while providing a social safety net, they had to choose between raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were wildly unpopular with voters. As a result, lottery advocates began to narrow the scope of what the game would fund. Rather than arguing that it would subsidize an entire state’s budget, they started to say that it could help finance a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan, such as education, elder care, or public parks. In that sense, it did work: it shifted funding to those areas. It just happened to be a bit less than what was advertised.