The Problems With Playing the Lottery


The casting of lots for the distribution of prizes has a long record in human history and has been employed to decide many important matters. In modern times, state lotteries are a major source of government revenue and have been used for a variety of purposes, from buying a new car to financing the rebuilding of the British Museum. But they are also subject to intense criticism by opponents who charge that they promote addictive gambling behavior, are a major regressive tax on low-income groups, and create other abuses. The state’s desire to increase lottery revenues runs into an inherent conflict with its duty to safeguard the public welfare.

The main thrust of the lottery’s advertising is to convince people that they can win a large sum of money without any effort on their part. While this is not entirely false, it can mislead players about the odds of winning and lead them to irrational betting behavior. Some of these habits may persist even after a win, such as a tendency to buy the same numbers again. Other problems include a tendency to purchase tickets in large quantities (which increases the odds of winning but decreases the average prize per ticket), to use a “lucky number” or other irrational system, and to play only when the jackpot is high.

In the end, most people who play the lottery know that they are unlikely to win. Yet they feel compelled to try anyway, at least for the small sliver of hope that it will be their turn to change their lives for the better. This irrational optimism has some foundation in reality. People who play the lottery frequently do make some good choices, such as selecting multiple numbers and buying a lot of tickets to improve their chances. And the top prize winners often spend some of their winnings on responsible activities that benefit society, such as education or medical care.

While the majority of Americans play the lottery, the player base consists of a disproportionately large percentage of low-income, less educated, nonwhite and male citizens. This group represents the bottom 20 to 30 percent of lottery players in terms of buying power. Super-sized jackpots also drive lottery sales, since they draw attention to the game and generate free publicity on news sites and TV. The drawbacks of super-sized jackpots are a high rate of fraud, the risk of inflation dramatically eroding the actual value of a prize, and the fact that a large percentage of jackpots are paid in installments over twenty years, which reduces the initial impact on current income.

Despite the widespread popularity of state lotteries, few states have a coherent policy on their operation. Instead, decisionmaking is fragmented among the legislature and executive branch, and pressures on officials to raise revenue have little to do with the general public welfare. Moreover, once a lottery is established, the state has a hard time changing it, as evidenced by the evolution of New Hampshire’s lotteries.