The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling, with Americans spending upward of $100 billion on tickets annually. States promote the lottery as ways to raise revenue, but how meaningful this revenue is to broader state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-off of people losing money, is up for debate. In addition, many people do not understand the true cost of winning a lottery prize. The jackpot of a Powerball ticket, for example, is advertised in millions, but after taxes it will be much smaller—and may be distributed over an entire lifetime.

Lottery is an ancient practice, with the earliest recorded lottery drawings appearing on keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty in about 205 BC. It is also the basis for many modern systems, including military conscription, commercial promotions in which prizes are awarded by chance, and jury selection processes.

Despite the fact that people spend large amounts of money buying lottery tickets, most do not consider it gambling. Lottery advertising messages often imply that playing the lottery is fun and harmless, and it’s easy to see why people might buy these tickets. But talking to actual lottery players—people who play for years, spending $50 or $100 a week—reveals that there is more to the story.

These people get value from the hope that a lottery win will improve their lives, even though they know the odds of winning are extremely low. Those hopes are a powerful force for many, particularly those who don’t have great prospects in the economy or their personal lives.