The Odds of Winning the Lottery

The lottery is America’s most popular form of gambling. It’s a fixture in the national fabric and a major source of state revenues. But people who play the lottery often have a skewed sense of the odds. They have quote-unquote systems of picking numbers and lucky stores, times of day to buy, and the kinds of tickets to purchase. They may even have a sliver of hope that they’ll win. And if they do, it would likely change their lives forever.

State governments establish a monopoly for the lotteries they run; they select a public corporation to operate them (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of profits); they start with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, due to continuing pressure for revenue, progressively expand the scope of their operations. In other words, state governments seem to have little qualms about growing their gambling businesses in ways that might harm the health and wellbeing of citizens.

What’s worse, lottery officials tend to downplay the regressivity of their product and its negative impacts on society. Instead, they promote a message that the lottery is just a fun thing to do and that its prizes are “good for kids.” This message obscures the fact that many of these state-sponsored gambling games are largely a waste of money that drains families’ resources in the name of an opportunity to win a prize that might not materialize.

Lottery games can also become addictive. This is particularly true for jackpots that grow to enormous, apparently newsworthy amounts and generate lots of free publicity on television and the internet. But even when the jackpot isn’t huge, the odds of winning are long. A player’s chances of matching five numbers are 1 in 126, and even the right pattern can only be played once or twice in 100 draws.

Some people have made a living out of playing the lottery, but most lottery players are not making that sort of financial sacrifice. For most, the lottery is not a hobby or a way to get rich; it’s a last-ditch effort for a better life. This is why it’s so important for all of us to be clear-eyed about the odds and how the game works.

A lottery is only an acceptable form of gambling if the proceeds are seen as benefiting a particular public good, such as education. Studies have shown that this argument is very effective in generating broad public approval for the games, particularly when states are facing budget crises and are tempted to increase taxes or cut vital services. The problem is that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state have very little bearing on whether or when it adopts a lottery, as Clotfelter and Cook point out.

Categories: Gambling