The Truth About the Lottery


Americans spend about $80 billion a year on lottery tickets, and that makes it the most popular form of gambling in the country. States promote lotteries by saying they raise money for kids’ programs, and that’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

People who buy lottery tickets spend a lot of money for the chance of winning big money, but they also lose a lot of it. Whether they win or lose, they have to pay taxes, and it’s not uncommon for winners to be bankrupt within a few years. In fact, winning the lottery is often a bad financial move, and people would be better off saving that money for emergencies, paying off debt, or investing it in their own small businesses.

When we talk about lotteries, it’s easy to think that the only reason anyone plays is because they’re irrational or have been duped by state officials. But in fact, the people who play the lottery are surprisingly clear-eyed about the odds. They know the numbers will come up sometimes more than others, but they don’t think that means the state is rigging things. They just believe that if they play enough, they’ll eventually win.

It’s also important to recognize that, even if the odds are long, there’s always a sliver of hope. And in many cases, the lottery isn’t just an option — it’s the only opportunity. The lottery is a way for them to escape the grim reality of their lives and the hopelessness of their situation, even if only for a brief moment.

Lottery games have a long history in the West, with the first recorded public lotteries offering tickets for prizes of money taking place in the Low Countries in the 15th century. But the idea of casting lots to decide matters of fate or fortune has an even longer record, going back to ancient times.

There are, of course, other ways for people to gamble — casinos, sports books, horse racing and the stock market. And those activities don’t expose players to nearly the same level of danger or addiction as the lottery does. It’s a question of whether the state should be in the business of promoting such a vice, especially when it takes in only a tiny fraction of overall state revenue.

The state should be able to support itself without having to encourage people to lose their money. And while there’s no denying that the state benefits from lottery revenues, it’s not clear whether that benefit outweighs the cost of encouraging a vice that will ultimately lead to bankruptcy and broken families. It’s time to look at other ways to generate revenue for the state, and make sure that lotteries aren’t at cross-purposes with the rest of government.