The Truth About the Lottery

The word lottery may conjure images of a game in which numbers are randomly drawn and those who hold tickets with those numbers win prizes. The reality is that there are a number of different kinds of lotteries. Some involve paying a small fee to try to get something you want, such as a house, a car, or even a job. Other types of lotteries offer cash prizes. The latter are called financial lotteries and they are a common source of government revenue.

Some states have established state-run lotteries in order to raise money for a particular public good, such as education. In the immediate post-World War II period, lotteries allowed governments to expand their array of services without raising taxes or cutting back on essential programs. But this arrangement eventually broke down as inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War eroded state budgets, forcing many of these lotteries to become more heavily dependent on the proceeds of lottery play.

Across the country, the vast majority of lottery players are white, male, and middle-class. They are more likely to be married and to have a college degree. They are more likely to be employed than to be unemployed or retired, and they are less likely to be religiously affiliated. They also are more likely to own a home and have a higher income.

These factors can explain why low-income and minority citizens are disproportionately less likely to participate in lotteries. But they cannot explain why, despite this, people still feel like they have to take a chance on the lottery—even when the odds of winning are 1 in 10.