People spent more than $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021, making it America’s most popular form of gambling. But the odds of winning are often much lower than many other kinds of gambling. And when you consider how much people lose—and how little state governments actually get out of those ticket sales—it can feel like a big waste of time and money.
Lottery means any of a wide variety of techniques for distributing licenses or permits when the demand exceeds supply, such as those used to award military conscription contracts, commercial promotions in which property is given away randomly, and even the selection of jurors. Modern lotteries offer cash prizes and typically promise a percentage of the proceeds to charitable causes. But they’re also considered a form of gambling because participants must pay some sort of consideration for the chance to win, whether it be money or a valuable good.
Traditionally, state lotteries have promoted their games by stressing that the proceeds benefit a specific public good, such as education. Studies have shown that this message is effective and can sway people’s decisions about purchasing tickets. But I’ve never seen any data putting those lottery profits in the context of overall state revenue. The real message that lotteries are relying on now is that, even if you lose, you should feel good about it because you’re doing your civic duty by buying a ticket.
One reason the popularity of lotteries is so hard to pin down is that the results are influenced by a range of demographic and economic factors. For example, in addition to gender and income differences, researchers have found that the poor play lotteries at a rate far below their proportion of the population. Lottery play is also linked to educational levels; it tends to fall as the number of years of formal schooling increases.
The other factor influencing lottery popularity is the size of the jackpots, which are designed to generate headlines and publicity and thus drive ticket sales. This strategy has a downside, however: When the top prize doesn’t get drawn, it rolls over to the next drawing and the chances of winning are diminished.
I’ve spoken to a lot of lottery players, including people who have been playing for years, spending $50 or $100 a week on tickets. They defy the stereotypes that you might have about irrational gamblers. They’re not dumb, they’re clear-eyed about the odds, and they understand that it’s a longshot, but they’ve come to the conclusion that it may be their only shot at a better life.
The fact is, though, that a lot of people do end up in worse situations than they were in before they started playing the lottery. But the answer isn’t to stop selling tickets, which would make it harder for them to find the next shot at a better life. It’s to reconsider the purpose of these games—and the ways in which they influence our lives.