Why People Still Play the Lottery


The odds of winning the lottery are shockingly low. But that doesn’t stop people from buying tickets. In fact, some people actually make money from playing the lottery. These people work behind the scenes designing scratch-off games, recording live drawing events, and working at lottery headquarters to help winners with their claims. All of these people have a paycheck and overhead costs to cover. The rest of the proceeds from ticket sales go into the prize pool.

The bigger the jackpot gets, the more tickets are sold. That’s because everyone wants a piece of the pie that has been estimated to be worth over seventy billion dollars. In a recent study by the consumer financial company Bankrate, wealthy people spend about one per cent of their annual income on lottery tickets, while those earning less than fifty thousand dollars purchase thirteen per cent of the available tickets.

When the prize gets really big, jackpots are advertised in newscasts and on websites. That boosts ticket sales, as does the promise of a new life if you hit it big. But these jackpots also reflect the underlying problem in our society, which is that most Americans are not getting richer. Since the nineteen-seventies, the income gap has widened, job security and pensions have declined, health care and unemployment insurance costs have skyrocketed, and the long-standing national promise that hard work would make children better off than their parents has stopped being true for most people.

Lotteries have been around for centuries. During the fourteen-hundreds, they were used in the Low Countries to build town fortifications and help poor citizens, while in England Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first state lottery, pledging that the profits “shall be for the reparation of the Havens and the Strength of the Realme.”

While it’s true that states need to bolster their budgets, many legalization advocates have given up selling the lottery as a silver bullet that will solve all of a state’s fiscal problems. Instead, they’ve repositioned it as a way to fund a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans—without rousing the ire of anti-tax voters.

People still play the lottery, but the amount they spend on tickets has decreased in tandem with their incomes. They still believe in quote-unquote systems that aren’t based on mathematical reasoning, such as the idea that certain numbers are lucky or that you should buy more tickets at certain stores and times of day. But the truth is, you have a much better chance of finding a lucky number if you do the math. So why not just take the time to do that?

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