Does the Lottery Have Value?


The lottery is a fixture in American society, and it’s also the most popular form of gambling. Its popularity raises important questions about whether it has value and how people decide to participate in it. But the answers to those questions are not easy to find. Most state lotteries follow a similar pattern: The state legitimises a monopoly for itself; establishes a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a slice of the revenue); begins with a relatively small number of simple games; and then, under pressure from the need to increase revenues, gradually expands its range of games. This expansion has usually occurred over decades and centuries, although in the case of some lottery-like games, such as keno, the process is much faster.

The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for sale with prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Town records from Ghent, Utrecht and Bruges show that public lotteries were used to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The idea was that, by offering an incentive to play a game that had some chance of winning the prize, people would be willing to pay more taxes, which could then be used to provide social services without the onerous burden of direct taxation.

It’s a message that has proven enduringly effective, even as states’ fiscal conditions have changed. But there’s a flaw in the logic: it assumes that the money people spend on lottery tickets is somehow a ‘good thing’, a contribution to children’s education or whatever else, when in reality it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket of overall state revenue.

As a result, many lottery advertisements claim that the state benefits from each ticket sold (even though all of the proceeds go to the winner); encourage players to consider their purchase as a ‘civic duty’; or inflate the size of jackpots to generate publicity and attract customers. These tactics are not merely misleading, but in some cases can be illegal under the laws of some jurisdictions.

There are a number of other issues with lottery advertising that deserve attention, too. For instance, research shows that men tend to play more often than women; blacks and Hispanics more than whites; the young and the old play less frequently than middle-aged people; and income levels are a major factor in lottery playing, with those from lower socioeconomic groups playing less than those from higher-income households.

Lottery advertising also tends to promote the use of “lucky” numbers, such as birthdays or anniversaries, which can reduce the odds of winning by splitting the prize with other players who pick the same numbers. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman, however, warns that this is not a good strategy because it’s unlikely that the numbers chosen will appear in the winning combination more than once or twice.

Posted in: Gambling