The Problems With the Lottery – How Lottery Marketing Misleads People About the Odds of Winning


The lottery is one of the world’s most widespread and popular forms of gambling. People buy tickets to try and win a prize, which could be anything from cash to cars to property. The idea that there is an unbounded amount of money to be won is a powerful temptation, even for those who would otherwise not gamble. This is what lottery marketers count on, and it works. In the United States alone, people spend about $80 billion a year on lotteries.

While the concept of a lottery is ancient, the modern version began in America in the nineteenth century. This is when growing awareness of the vast sums to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As population growth and inflation accelerated, many states were finding that balancing their budgets required either raising taxes or cutting services. The latter option was a nonstarter with voters, and so governments turned to the lottery to raise needed funds.

Lottery advocates in those days dismissed long-standing ethical objections by arguing that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well take advantage of their innate propensity for risk. The argument worked to a degree, but it was soon undermined by reality. State-sponsored gambling primarily attracted black number players, and the profits they generated left white voters footing the bill for services they wouldn’t have wanted to pay for on their own.

Another problem with the lottery is that it misleads participants about the odds of winning. While the numbers that come up most frequently in a drawing are more likely to be drawn, any set of six numbers is equally as likely to win. People who win the lottery often find that they can’t manage to spend the money they’ve won and wind up bankrupt or in debt within a few years.

The truth is that, despite what state lottery marketing campaigns might suggest, the chances of winning are slim to none. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from putting their faith in the lottery as a way to become rich. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: The bigger the jackpot gets, the more people want to play.

The lesson here is that if we’re to avoid becoming the “seventh-world” country that Alexander Hamilton warned us about, it’s time to stop treating gambling like an investment and start treating it as what it is: a vice. That means not just cracking down on gangster casinos, but also regulating the state-sponsored lottery and insisting that its proceeds be directed to a line item in the state budget that voters support. In other words, a vote for the lottery is not just a vote for gambling, but a vote for education or veterans or a clean environment. That’s a vote most of us can live with. For now, anyway. The future of the lottery remains uncertain. A version of this article appears in the February 11, 2016 issue of Fortune.