Gambling and the Lottery

The lottery raises billions of dollars in the United States every year. Some people play for fun; others believe that the prize money will be their ticket to a better life. Lottery advertising has two messages primarily: promoting the entertainment value of playing the lottery (and its low odds); and, more sinisterly, suggesting that the chance to win the jackpot is your only way out in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. This coded message obscures the regressivity of lottery spending and the irrational gamble that it represents.

Lotteries have long been popular as a source of “painless” revenue: they are viewed as a form of taxation where players choose to spend their money rather than being coerced into doing so by state legislatures or other public agencies. This has been especially true in times of economic stress, when the specter of draconian budget cuts has made the lottery seem like an alternative that avoids raising taxes. However, studies have shown that the objective fiscal condition of a state does not appear to be an important factor in whether or when a lottery is adopted and then sustained in popularity. Revenues typically expand rapidly after a lottery is introduced, then level off and sometimes even decline, due to what is known as the boredom factor.

Nevertheless, the lottery continues to attract large numbers of people, even though many are clear about the odds and that winning is unlikely. These people are often rationalizing their gambling by making all sorts of irrational assumptions, such as that they should buy tickets only at certain stores or times of day, or by following quote-unquote systems that are not based on statistical reasoning.