How the Lottery Works


Lottery has been around for thousands of years, deployed as everything from a party game during Roman Saturnalias to divining God’s will. It’s the most popular form of gambling in the world, and for good reason. It’s fun, easy to get into and can lead to big money. But it’s also deceptive, because there is no way to know what will happen next. Even if you buy every ticket in the lottery, there’s no guarantee that you’ll win.

Despite the fact that most people understand that winning the lottery is a long shot, they still play it. Some of them have quote-unquote “systems” that aren’t based on any kind of statistical reasoning, such as buying tickets only at lucky stores or times of day. Others, however, are clear-eyed about the odds. They know that the chances of winning a large sum are very low and they’re playing for a sliver of hope that they will somehow change their luck.

As a result, lottery sales are sensitive to economic conditions. During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when many Americans were growing poorer and losing their jobs, lottery participation spiked. This, as the economist Steven Cohen writes, is because “lottery spending is a proxy for hope and a reminder that the future will be better than the past.”

The problem with this logic, though, is that the lottery is not a substitute for a real social safety net. In fact, it’s often entangled in that safety net’s creation and maintenance. In the early American lottery, for example, prizes sometimes included human beings—George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose winners included slaves and Denmark Vesey won a prize that allowed him to buy his freedom and foment a rebellion.

In the modern lottery, the profits are used to pay for education, road improvements, and public charities. Some states have even begun a separate lottery to fund their state pensions and health-care systems. The immediate post-World War II period was a time when states could expand services without especially onerous taxes on middle and working class people, but that arrangement began to crumble in the 1960s.

In the late eighties, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and the nation’s income inequality soaring, lottery sales rose again. This was in part because lottery products are marketed heavily in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. But the more important factor was that, by the nineteen-seventies, it had become increasingly clear to most people that their dreams of unimaginable wealth were unrealistic. The promise of a better life through hard work and perseverance was failing to come true.