The Power of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling where participants pay for a ticket, select numbers or have machines randomly spit out numbers, and win prizes if enough of their tickets match those that are drawn. Historically, the lottery was a way for organizations or institutions to raise money without running a risk of going broke or having their funds confiscated by government regulators. Once state governments took control of the system, however, the game became a form of state-sponsored gambling and one of the most popular forms of recreational gambling in the country.

People buy lottery tickets because they enjoy the thrill of the risk and the idea of becoming rich quickly. They do this even when they know the odds of winning are extremely low. They also do it despite the fact that, as a group, they contribute billions to government receipts that could be used for other purposes, including saving for retirement or paying for college tuition.

In many states, the lottery is a large part of the budget, and as state finances deteriorated in the nineteen-sixties, advocates shifted their sales strategy from arguing that lotteries were a good way to float the entire budget to claiming that they would help fund a specific line item, often education, but occasionally veterans’ benefits or public parks. This new message, which focused on how the lottery would help people directly, was a more effective way of getting voters to approve of state-sponsored gambling.

As the popularity of the lottery increased, so did its political influence. Its supporters disregarded long-standing ethical objections to gambling and argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, it was better for the state to pocket the profits. This argument, though flawed, gave moral cover to people who were otherwise adamant about not supporting gambling.

Lottery advertising campaigns use a variety of tricks to lure potential customers, from billboards that proclaim “Small chance, big reward” to jingles that suggest you are missing out on something important if you don’t play. The tactics work. In the United States, almost half of all adults play the lottery.

There’s no doubt that the lottery is a powerful force in American culture, and its appeal remains undiminished by an ever-growing number of people who think they’re the next big winner. The question is whether that’s a good thing. In a world that’s increasingly inequitable and characterized by limited social mobility, the lottery’s promise of instant riches can be seductive to many. But it’s also a dangerous fantasy that can wreak financial havoc. NerdWallet’s experts explain why.