Is the Lottery Worth It?

The lottery is the biggest gambling game in America, and it raises billions of dollars each year for state governments. The money is used to fund things like education, infrastructure, and social services. But the big question is whether that spending is worth it. And the answer to that depends on how much you believe, as I do, that people should be able to make their own luck.

In the seventeenth century, it became very common in the Netherlands to organize lotteries to collect money for a variety of purposes. They were so popular that they were hailed as a painless form of taxation. In fact, the word “lottery” itself is believed to have come from the Dutch phrase “lot,” which means fate or destiny.

Lottery became a popular way to finance public works and town fortifications. It was also a way to pay for charity, such as providing food for the poor. The games were so successful that they spread throughout Europe, including England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery in 1567.

People go into lottery play clear-eyed about the odds. They know that they are not going to win the jackpot, but they think that a little bit of luck could help them get by. They may have all sorts of quote-unquote systems — totally not based on statistical reasoning — about lucky numbers and stores and the best times to buy tickets, but they all realize that it is a long shot. And they still buy.

The modern lottery grew out of the post-World War II era, when states that had expanded their social safety nets found that they needed to raise more revenue to keep up with inflation and the cost of the Vietnam war. They were looking for solutions that would not enrage their anti-tax electorate.

Lotteries were a perfect fit. They allowed states to increase government services without raising taxes or cutting programs. This arrangement worked well until the nineteen-sixties, when rising inflation, population growth, and the costs of the war triggered budget crises in many states.

When that happened, supporters of the lottery began to shift their tactics. They stopped arguing that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget, and focused on a line item that was both popular and nonpartisan — usually education or elder care or aid for veterans. This approach made legalization easier.

But it also makes it harder to justify the expense of the lottery, especially since it has become increasingly popular. One study suggests that more than half of Americans have played the lottery at least once. These players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. They are more likely to play a smaller prize, and their winnings tend to be lower than those of the winners in the larger prizes. But the enduring popularity of lottery shows that we are willing to risk our hard-earned paychecks on the chance that someone else’s luck will improve ours.