The Bad Side of the Lottery

Lottery is a vehicle through which state governments raise a lot of dough for their schools and other public-service projects. But while the big prizes draw people in, there’s a whole lot more going on here that’s not so good for everyone involved. Those who play the lottery tend to be low-income, less educated and mostly nonwhite. They also tend to be impulsive and spend more money than they have. And, of course, they have a tendency to covet the money that others have and all the things that money can buy.

Gambling is a part of human nature, and the appeal of winning big is hard to resist. But, as long as people are capable of rational decision making and weighing alternatives, they should be able to recognize that the chances of winning the lottery depend on a whole lot of other factors—not just the numbers drawn. Those who want to increase their odds of winning should focus on choosing a game that has the lowest house edge. They should also consider the odds of winning, which are calculated by dividing the total value of all possible combinations of winning numbers by the number of tickets sold. For example, the odds of winning the Powerball are 1 in 35.

Most states, including the District of Columbia, operate a lottery. They typically legislate a monopoly for themselves; establish a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by continuous pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand the offering of new games.

Historically, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing at some point in the future, often weeks or months away. But innovations in the 1970s greatly expanded the range of available games and boosted revenue growth. As that revenue stream plateaued, the need for a continuing flow of new players led to the development of instant games like scratch-offs.

Lotteries are now popular with all sorts of people, but they’re a lot more popular among men than women; blacks and Hispanics play more frequently than whites; the young and old play less frequently than those in the middle age range; and Catholics play more frequently than Protestants. The reason for these differences is complex, but one important factor is that those who play the lottery are disproportionately low-income, less educated and mostly of nonwhite origin. They’re the very people whom society shouldn’t be exploiting. The Bible is clear in its prohibition against coveting the things that money can buy, and yet lotteries lure people into playing the game by dangling the promise of a huge payout. That’s just wrong. It’s time to put an end to this nonsense.