Why Play the Lottery?

In the United States, state lotteries are a large and growing component of the nation’s gaming industry. Each lottery operates according to its own unique rules and regulations, but many follow similar models: a legislative monopoly; establishment of a state agency or corporation to run the games; initial operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and subsequent expansion into new game types to maintain and increase revenues.

Lotteries have enjoyed broad public approval since their earliest days. In modern times, they continue to generate high levels of revenue, and they attract a wide range of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (the primary vendors for state-sponsored lotteries); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these businesses to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in states in which the proceeds from lotteries are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra cash). Moreover, as the result of state-sponsored advertising, most people enter the lotteries with clear-eyed understanding of the odds and how the games work.

Even so, the sheer size of the prizes offered by today’s lotteries can produce an uncomfortable sense of entitlement in those who participate. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the winnings are determined solely by chance. Despite the odds of winning, many people feel that they deserve to be rich and that the lottery provides them with an opportunity to achieve this goal.

The reality is that true wealth is almost always achieved through the hard work of saving and investing. The only exceptions are a handful of very fortunate individuals who are born with wealthy families or come into massive inheritances. Even for those who are careful to pay off debt, set aside savings for retirement and college, diversify their investments, and keep a strong emergency fund, attaining real wealth is still a difficult endeavor. This is especially true for those who play the lottery, where the odds are extraordinarily long but they retain a thin sliver of hope that they will win big one day.

Historically, lotteries have been used to raise money for a variety of public projects, from building streets and bridges to constructing colleges. The practice was common in colonial-era America and Benjamin Franklin promoted a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution, while Thomas Jefferson sponsored a private lottery to help with his crushing debts. Today’s lotteries, however, are almost exclusively profit-driven businesses. They rely on the message that they are good for the state and that buying a ticket is a civic duty. This is a dangerous illusion. It ignores the fact that lottery proceeds are a tiny drop in the bucket of state government, and it promotes gambling as a substitute for other forms of public expenditure. This is at cross-purposes with state policy goals such as raising educational standards and reducing poverty. It also undermines the moral authority of government and creates a false sense of civic duty that encourages irresponsible behavior, particularly among the young.