Is Playing the Lottery a Good Idea?

Across the country, people buy tickets to a lottery to win big money. But is it a good idea?

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history—Nero was fond of them—and is documented throughout the Bible. But the lottery, where players pay for a ticket and then hope to win a prize by matching numbers or other symbols, is a more recent invention. It was first recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where towns used public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor.

In the decades that followed, state governments searched for ways to balance their budgets without enraging their increasingly tax-averse constituents, and turned to the lottery as an easy solution. While many critics objected to the moral implications of a state-run gambling operation, others dismissed these objections as hypocritical and argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, government might as well take the profits.

As a result, state-run lotteries exploded across America, becoming the nation’s single largest source of revenue. Typically, each state legislates its own monopoly; creates a public corporation or agency to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the proceeds); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by constant pressure to generate additional revenues, gradually expands its offerings.

Despite the plethora of newer forms of online gambling, most Americans continue to play the lottery, and it is among the most popular pastimes in the world. The average American spends about 18.7 days playing the lottery in a given year, and men are more likely to play than women. The lottery is particularly popular among young adults, with the percentage of people in their twenties and thirties who have played rising to over 70 percent.

The popularity of the lottery corresponds to a decline in financial security for most working people, a collapse in the promise that education and hard work would enable them to leave their children better off than they were, and a growing sense of inequality between rich and poor. Some of these changes may have been inevitable, but the lottery’s explosion as a source of income is less so, reflecting an American obsession with wealth that is often irrational. In fact, a recent study found that the receipt of scratch-off lottery tickets in childhood or adolescence is associated with risky and problematic gambling habits. It is a reminder that the lottery, which began as a morally questionable activity, has evolved into an insidious addiction. Unless we rethink our relationship with it, our nation will find itself at a disadvantage in the global economy.