The Risks of Playing the Lottery


Lottery is a popular form of gambling in which people pay to purchase a ticket and win a prize, such as money or goods. The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in the United States, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year. State governments promote lotteries by portraying them as ways to raise revenue. That ticket you buy at the gas station isn’t just a waste of money, it’s actually helping “the children.”

But how meaningful is that revenue in broader state budgets, and is it worth the trade-offs that lottery playing imposes on individuals? In a recent article, Matthew Yglesias explores the question.

The first recorded lotteries, which offered cash prizes in exchange for ticket purchases, took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century. According to town records from Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges, locals would hold public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and the poor.

By the late 1700s, lotteries had spread to the American colonies, where they were used to finance everything from a battery of guns to a new city hall in Philadelphia. But they also became entangled with the slave trade in unpredictable ways: George Washington once managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey won a lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

As the popularity of lotteries grew, politicians began to use them to address a growing crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-sixties, a swelling population and the cost of the Vietnam War made it impossible for many states to maintain their existing services without hiking taxes or cutting services, which was unpopular with voters. Lotteries seemed like the ideal solution—they could bring in massive sums of money without arousing voter suspicion.

There are some people who argue that the lottery is a necessary evil to fund government, but the reality is that it is a very expensive form of gambling. Moreover, research has shown that it can lead to compulsive gambling. The best way to avoid becoming a compulsive gambler is to know how to play responsibly. Here are some tips to help you do so.

1. Keep a record of your tickets.

A good record is essential to making sure you don’t lose your tickets. When you purchase your tickets, make sure to keep them in a safe place and write down the date of the drawing in your calendar. It’s also a good idea to review your numbers before the drawing. You can do this by looking at previous results or consulting Richard Lustig, a mathematician who has won the lottery 14 times. He recommends selecting numbers that are not clustered together and avoiding ones that end with the same digit.

Lottery players who make more than fifty thousand dollars a year spend about one percent of their income on tickets. In contrast, those who make less than thirty thousand dollars a year spend thirteen per cent of their income on tickets. That difference may seem trivial, but it is indicative of how much more regressive the lottery is than other forms of gambling.