Is the Lottery Worth the Risk?


The lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in America. It’s easy to see why: It’s quick, convenient and relatively inexpensive, especially compared to other forms of gambling. In fact, buying a lottery ticket can save you money over the long run. But is it worth the risk? Here’s a look at what you need to know.

State governments have largely sold the lottery by arguing that it’s a “painless revenue source.” Politicians and voters alike love the idea of people voluntarily spending their own money to fund state services, whether that be education or elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. But this is a dangerous narrative, and it obscures the real reasons why lottery sales are so robust.

When people buy lottery tickets, they are essentially buying into a system of addiction. From the design of the lottery games themselves to their ad campaigns, every aspect is engineered to keep people hooked. It’s not dissimilar to the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game makers, and it is a major reason why so many states are so addicted to the lottery.

Lottery players often buy multiple tickets each week, and they tend to play the same numbers over and over again. They also tend to spend more on each ticket than people who don’t play. This kind of behavior can result in a serious loss of control. And while it may feel like a great way to pass the time, there are better ways to spend your spare cash.

The odds of winning are absurdly low—you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than becoming the next Powerball winner. But that hasn’t stopped people from putting billions of dollars into lottery tickets. As a group, these gamblers contribute billions to government receipts they could have been saving for retirement or college tuition.

Aside from a few religious exceptions, most states have lotteries, but there are six that don’t: Alabama, Utah, Mississippi, Idaho, Nevada and, of course, Las Vegas. There are a number of reasons for their absence, including religious concerns, the fact that these states have other forms of legal gambling and don’t need the extra revenue, and the perception that the lottery would encourage illegal gambling.

But in the states that do have a lottery, it has proven a remarkably powerful tool for raising money. The prize pools are enormous, and there’s a strong incentive for people to play: When the jackpot is too large to pay out in a lump sum, it’s typically paid in an annuity over 30 years, which means that you’ll receive a small payment every year until you die. The rest of the money will go to beneficiaries selected by the state. Learn more about where your lottery money goes in this interactive map.

Posted in: Gambling