Gambling and the Lottery

A lottery is an arrangement whereby a prize is awarded on the basis of a draw of lots. It is often used as a method of raising funds for public projects, such as building town fortifications and providing charity for the poor. It is also used for sports competitions, and has been a common fund-raising method for many religious charities. The name derives from the Dutch word lot, meaning “fate” or “chance.” It may refer to a single number or a series of numbers. The prize is often a cash sum or an item of value, such as a car, a vacation, or a house. The first recorded lottery was held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. In England, the first state-sponsored lottery was chartered in 1567, with profits designated to pay for repairs and strengthen the kingdom’s defenses.

People like to gamble. That’s why lotteries are so popular, and why so much money is spent on them. They are a form of risky play with a high chance of losing money, but also a very low probability of winning the jackpot. Despite these odds, there are some people who become so obsessed with the lottery that they spend enormous amounts of money on tickets. In order to understand why this is, we must first look at the psychology of gambling.

Cohen writes that America’s obsession with the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot coincided with a decline in economic security for most working Americans. Beginning in the nineteen-sixties, income gaps widened, unemployment and health-care costs rose, and the long-standing promise that education and hard work would allow children to do better than their parents’ generation faded away. The lottery was a way for Americans to make up this shortfall without the pain of raising taxes or cutting programs.

Lottery advocates changed tactics, arguing that legalizing the game could cover a line item in the state budget—usually education but sometimes other public services such as elder care or public parks. This strategy allowed supporters to frame their case as an ethical choice that would help the least affluent members of society. It was an appealing message to voters who were wrangling with their state governments over soaring deficits and shrinking social safety nets.

The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that most lottery players aren’t poor. The average American spends more than $80 billion on lottery tickets every year. That’s more than most of them have in savings, or even enough to cover a month of living expenses. For those who do win, there’s a high likelihood that the windfall will be taxed, so they will actually have less than they paid for the ticket. And for most, the entertainment value of playing isn’t nearly enough to overcome the disutility of monetary loss. This makes the purchase irrational. A better way to spend the money would be to put it into an emergency fund or use it to pay off debt.