The Truth About the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which prizes, such as cash or goods, are awarded by drawing lots. In the United States, people spend billions of dollars each year on state-sponsored lotteries. Some play for entertainment, while others think winning the lottery is their only hope of a better life.

The casting of lots for decisions and for determining fates has a long record in human history, including many instances in the Bible. The use of lotteries to distribute money, however, is a more recent development. In colonial America, a lottery was used to raise funds for the Continental Congress, and private lotteries helped build Harvard, Yale, and other American colleges. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to finance cannons for Philadelphia in the Revolution, and George Washington attempted to hold one to relieve his crushing debts.

While the wealthy do play lotteries (one of the most significant recent jackpots was a quarter of a billion dollars), they buy far fewer tickets than the poor. For example, people making over fifty thousand dollars a year spend only about one percent of their income on tickets; those earning less than thirty-five thousand spend thirteen per cent.

Some defend the lottery by arguing that players understand how unlikely they are to win, or that they are able to rationally weigh the disutility of monetary loss against the non-monetary value of the ticket’s entertainment value. But this view overlooks the fact that lottery spending is highly responsive to economic change. Lottery sales increase when incomes fall and unemployment grows, and the products are largely advertised in neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income, black, or Latino.