The Problem With Playing the Lottery


The lottery is a way to win a little money by taking a big chance. As with all games of chance, it can be a lot of fun or it can be a terrible waste of time and money. It can also lead to addiction. In fact, a recent study found that lottery play is more addictive than cigarette or video-game use. The study looked at lottery data and found that people who purchase tickets frequently are more likely to have a gambling problem. The reason is simple. The more people play the lottery, the greater their chances are to win, and winning a large sum of money is very appealing.

In the early United States, lotteries were a common way to raise funds for public projects. A variety of institutions benefited, including churches and schools, and many of the country’s first brick buildings were paid for with them. Moreover, lotteries were often tangled up in the slave trade, with enslaved people sometimes being sold as prizes. George Washington managed a lottery that included human beings as prizes, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won a Virginia lottery prize that allowed him to buy his freedom, then went on to foment slave rebellions.

As America became more industrialized, state lotteries were adopted to help finance education and social programs. Lottery revenues were crucial to the success of a new national infrastructure, and they provided a vital alternative to taxes, which were being levied at a rate that many Americans considered excessive. But the new era of economic uncertainty brought with it serious problems for most working families. The income gap widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the long-standing promise that hard work and education would render you better off than your parents ceased to be true for most people.

In response, defenders of the lottery promoted it as a “tax on the stupid.” The argument was that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits and do something good with them. This logic made sense to many politicians who saw the lottery as a painless source of revenue.

But the lottery’s popularity actually reflects a deeper problem. The odds of winning are not really that high, and most players are not stupid. As Cohen writes, lottery sales spike as incomes decline and unemployment rises; they increase when the number of ads is higher; and, in the United States, lottery products are most heavily marketed in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. The logical consequence is that, for the most part, winners don’t come from those neighborhoods. Instead, they are the people who most appreciate the opportunity to transcend the ordinary, who understand how to apply strategy, and who have an appetite for risk. This is why the most successful lottery players are not those who buy their tickets at the supermarket, but those who purchase them in bulk and in advance from a ticket vendor.