The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is a popular source of public revenue in many states. Its advocates claim that it is a “painless” source of funds that is both democratic and efficient: citizens voluntarily spend their money in the hope of winning big prizes for the good of the community. This argument has been effective in convincing voters to approve state lotteries, and it has helped to sustain lotteries even during periods of fiscal stress.

The concept of drawing lots to determine fates and fortunes has a long record in human history, beginning with the biblical instructions to Moses and later being used by Roman emperors to distribute property, slaves, and other commodities. But the modern state-sanctioned lottery is a much more recent invention. The first public lotteries were established in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, largely to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. The name derives from the Dutch word “lot,” meaning fate.

Today’s state-sponsored lotteries are based on the same basic model: a public monopoly is established, a prize fund is set and advertised, tickets are sold to a limited audience, and the results are drawn at a predetermined time and place. The result is the same as that of any game of chance: the odds of winning are extremely long.

Most people who play the lottery do so with the conviction that they are doing something worthwhile, perhaps a way of helping their children or themselves get ahead in life. But they may be deceiving themselves. The truth is that there is no such thing as a fair chance of winning, and the vast majority of players lose money.

Moreover, lottery revenues tend to increase quickly after they are introduced and then level off or even decline. As a consequence, the lottery has to constantly introduce new games in order to maintain and expand its customer base. The new games are designed to appeal to particular subsets of the customer base: lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male players.

In the end, lottery supporters often become enamored with their own participation in the scheme and start to think of themselves as morally superior to those who do not play. They may come up with quote-unquote systems — not statistically based, mind you, but based on their own irrational gambling behavior — about what type of ticket to buy or where and at what time to go to the store. They are also, of course, swayed by the countless billboards and radio and television commercials that bombard them with stories of how lucky they are to have won.