The Odds of Winning the Lottery


The New Yorker published a story in the 1940s about a small rural community where the town lottery is held in June. While the family heads are sifting through their slips, an elderly man—something of a town patriarch—discusses the matter with others and quotes a little traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.” It’s a quaint scene, but there is something unsettling about it. For one thing, it suggests that people aren’t just gambling for the money—they’re also betting on a higher order of social good.

State-sponsored lotteries were introduced during the boom in public spending after World War II. They were ostensibly designed to help the states pay for health care, education, and other social safety net programs without burdening the working class and middle classes with especially onerous taxes. This was a time when it seemed like there was some kind of economic magic at work, that it was possible to expand government services without increasing taxes.

But in truth, lottery revenues tend to grow rapidly at first, then level off and even decline. The reason is that after a while, people get bored of the same old games. To keep the interest going, lotteries introduce new games all the time—some of them with lower prize amounts than before and far greater odds.

People who play the lottery do know that winning is mostly about chance. But many of them go in with a sense of entitlement. They feel like they deserve to win, and they have all kinds of quote-unquote systems that are completely unfounded by statistical reasoning—about lucky numbers and stores and times of day and what types of tickets to buy.

Moreover, they are playing in the expectation that the big prizes will be a panacea for their problems. This, too, is a misguided expectation. Most lottery winners have trouble handling the sudden wealth, and they often spend their winnings on things that they didn’t really need. They may even find that they are worse off after a few years than before they won.

There are many reasons to dislike the lottery, but perhaps the biggest is that it’s a dangling promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. That’s not a message we should be sending to our children.

The word lottery probably comes from the Latin loterrium, meaning “the drawing of lots.” Its earliest use in English appears in the 15th century, but earlier examples are recorded in the Low Countries. Town records in Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges mention lotteries for raising funds to build walls and town fortifications. These early lotteries resembled modern state-sponsored ones, with the state legitimizing its monopoly for itself, creating a government agency to run it, and beginning operations with modest numbers of relatively simple games. Revenues generally rise dramatically at first and then level off, but the pressure for increased profits continues to drive the introduction of new games. Lotteries are a major source of state revenues and remain popular in most states.

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