The People Who Play the Lottery

A lottery is a game of chance where participants bet small sums of money on the possibility of winning a large prize. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and organize state or national lotteries. While some lotteries dish out big cash prizes to paying participants, others award prizes such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at reputable public schools. Financial lotteries are perhaps the most common, where players pay a small amount to select or have machines randomly spit out numbers or symbols.

In 2021 Americans spent upwards of $100 billion on lottery tickets. While the prize amounts can be enormous, many people who win spend their winnings within a few years. Others go bankrupt or use the money to cover unforeseen expenses, often reverting back to their pre-lottery incomes. There are some people, however, who really take the lottery seriously. They spend $50, $100 a week and are committed gamblers who do not play lightly. The most interesting conversations I’ve had about the lottery involve talking to these folks. They defy the expectations you might have going into a discussion with them, that they’re irrational and don’t understand the odds of winning.

They do understand, though, that the money they spend on lottery tickets is a very expensive form of gambling, with a high cost of addiction and regressivity. They know that lottery proceeds are a major source of revenue for states, and they try to communicate the message that this revenue is good for the state, for education or to save kids from poverty or whatever else they might need to say. But they’ve never articulated a clear picture of how meaningful that revenue is in the context of overall state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-offs for those who lose.