The Truth About the Lottery


In the abstract, lottery seems like a pretty good idea: It raises money for state governments without burdening working or middle-class citizens with special taxes. That arrangement helped states expand their social safety nets in the immediate post-World War II era, but it’s now crumbling to oblivion because of state budget deficits and inflation.

A lottery is a game of chance, and that’s why people play it. But the odds of winning are very small, and there is a real cost to the players. They are sucked into the game by advertising, which is intended to make the lottery seem as legitimate as other forms of gambling. The result is a massive marketing campaign that has no basis in fact.

Lotteries grew popular in Europe, where they were often used to fund public usages. The Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij is the oldest in operation, dating back to 1726. In colonial America, they were used to finance roads, canals, and bridges, as well as universities (including Princeton and Columbia) and churches.

Lottery revenue grows quickly after launch, but it then levels off and eventually declines. To keep revenues up, state lotteries introduce new games frequently, hoping to rekindle interest. But the constant introduction of new games is a waste of time and money, as they are no more likely to produce big winners than any other form of gambling. Lotteries have a skewed distribution of participation among Americans, with lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male populations disproportionately represented in their player base.