The Dark Side of Lottery


Lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world. Americans spend upwards of $100 billion on tickets annually, and many states promote their games as a way to raise money for public good. But how much these proceeds actually benefit the broader state budget, and whether they justify the trade-offs of people losing their money, are questions that need to be addressed.

In the early 17th century, the Continental Congress used a lottery to try and raise funds for the Revolutionary War. The Congress’s goal was to convince ordinary citizens that they would be willing to hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain, because “every man is better able to afford to hazard a little than a great deal.” In the early 19th century, states began to use lotteries to raise money for everything from roads to schools to prisons. Privately organized lotteries were even more common as a means of selling products and properties for more than could be obtained in an ordinary sale.

But there’s a dark side to the lottery that can be hidden beneath the bright lights and big jackpots. It’s a form of gambling that plays on a deep, inextricable human urge to dream big and hope for the impossible. It’s why we see billboards on the highway with the wildly improbable numbers and big prizes of Mega Millions and Powerball.

What’s more, the more tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning. This is not a coincidence. If you look at a graph of lottery outcomes, you can see that each row of applications was awarded a position in the drawing a similar number of times, regardless of whether it was first or last. In other words, it’s a completely random process.

Buying lottery tickets also appeals to people’s desire to make sense of the world around them. People are very good at developing an intuitive sense of how likely risks and rewards are based on their own experiences, but this skill doesn’t transfer to the scope of lotteries. It makes no sense, for example, that purchasing a ticket increases your odds of winning by the same factor as adding one more person to your group.

But despite these shortcomings, the lottery is still a popular form of gambling and continues to have its supporters. Perhaps the most important argument in favor of the lottery is that it provides a way for states to raise revenue without raising taxes on the working class and middle classes too much. But this argument overlooks just how unreliable the lottery really is as a source of revenue, and it’s worth considering what might be better options for states looking to increase their social safety nets.