The Growing Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for prizes. Unlike most other games, however, the lottery involves a significant amount of risk. In the United States, for example, players who purchase tickets spend an average of one per cent of their income on them. Those who make less than fifty thousand dollars spend thirteen per cent, according to consumer financial company Bankrate. The odds of winning are slim, but the money can be life-changing. As a result, the popularity of the lottery has grown even as Americans have become increasingly frugal.

In the fourteenth century, citizens of the Low Countries began drawing lots to determine fates, from public services like town repairs to the distribution of charity funds. These lotteries spread to England and, in time, America, despite the strict Protestant prohibition on gambling. Early American colonists funded church buildings and some of the nation’s first universities with lottery proceeds. Later, the lottery helped finance America’s expansion abroad and the building of the federal government itself.

Today, state governments sponsor dozens of lotteries. Some are private, while others operate as a division of the state’s finance department. Many lotteries feature a large jackpot prize and a number of smaller prizes, with a percentage of the pool reserved for organizers’ profits and marketing costs. In most cases, the jackpot and other prize amounts are advertised on the front of the ticket, as well as a list of rules that describes how the contest works.

Those who sell the tickets are also encouraged to advertise the odds of winning as high, and may even promote a particular strategy for playing them. Some of these strategies are based on the psychology of addiction. In fact, as Cohen explains, the tactics used by lottery marketers are not much different from those employed by tobacco companies or video-game makers.

Lotteries have gained popularity in recent years as a way for governments to raise revenue without the specter of raising taxes or cutting spending. They are hailed by politicians as “budget miracles,” providing revenue seemingly out of thin air. This is particularly true during economic stress, when voters’ aversion to tax increases can make it difficult for politicians to maintain services or programs.

Regardless of how they choose to play, most people who buy lottery tickets do so because of their hope that they will one day find themselves standing on a stage holding an oversized check for millions of dollars. And though they may be contributing billions to government receipts, many of these lottery players are putting themselves at significant risk—some have been murdered, kidnapped, or poisoned in the wake of their wins. For these reasons, it’s important to consider the risks before making a purchase. This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of The Atlantic. For more, subscribe to the magazine.