The Myth of the Lottery

Gambling Jun 18, 2024

Many people play the lottery – contributing billions to state coffers annually. They go into it clear-eyed about the odds and know that they’re likely to lose. Yet they still buy tickets and, if they’re lucky, stand on stage to receive an oversized check for millions of dollars. That’s because they’ve bought into the myth that the lottery, however improbable it may be, is their last, best or only chance to make a new start. And that’s the problem. It’s not just that lotteries are bad for the overall health of the economy, it’s that they give false hope to people who desperately need it.

In a world of inequality and stagnant wages, it’s no wonder that lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches in front of so many people. It’s no accident that billboards emblazoned with Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots proliferate along the interstates. Lottery marketers know exactly what they’re doing, and it’s not just that people plain old like to gamble. They’re also dangling an easy path to wealth in an era of economic inequality and limited social mobility.

The origins of the lottery can be traced to ancient times. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of the Israelites and divide land by lot, while Roman emperors used lotteries to distribute property and slaves. Throughout history, lotteries have been a popular way for governments and licensed promoters to raise money for all manner of projects, from building the British Museum to repairing bridges and building Faneuil Hall in Boston.

As states struggle to balance their budgets, many have turned to the lottery as a quick and easy way to raise revenue. But while lotteries are a popular source of funds, they’re not a solution to the fiscal crisis that states face. In fact, studies show that the popularity of a lottery does not correlate with a state’s actual financial condition and that lotteries often attract support in spite of a lack of need.

One reason is that state lawmakers and governors don’t have a coherent gambling policy, let alone a lottery policy. Instead, the development of state lotteries is a classic example of how public policy is made in a piecemeal and incremental manner. Moreover, lottery officials often inherit policies and dependencies on revenues that they have little control over.

Another reason is that lottery players tend to choose numbers based on personal data, such as birthdays or other dates. While this is a natural human impulse, Clotfelter says that it’s not a smart strategy because those numbers are more likely to be chosen by other players, so they have a lower probability of winning. The solution, he says, is to diversify your ticket choices by playing less common numbers or even choosing the computer’s random selection. This increases your chances of beating the odds.