The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are Slim

Whether you’re playing the lottery for fun or for big bucks, you have to understand that your odds of winning are slim. Americans spend over $80 billion on tickets each year and the vast majority of winners go broke within a few years. Instead of wasting money on this, it would be better to build an emergency fund or pay off your credit card debt.

The idea of drawing lots for a prize dates back to ancient times, as exemplified by the Old Testament’s command that Moses take a census and divide the land among Israel, or by Nero’s use of lotteries at his Saturnalia dinner parties. They are also attested to in many other cultures, and the casting of lots is evident throughout the Bible, from determining the inheritance of Jesus’ garments after his death to deciding who will receive certain blessings.

In the 17th century, lottery-like arrangements began spreading to America, often financed by private companies, as a means of raising funds for new ventures and public projects. By the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had voted to establish a lottery to support the Colonial Army, and Alexander Hamilton wrote that lotteries were “a common mode of securing a voluntary tax in lieu of an open, direct one.”

Publicly sponsored lotteries continued to be popular in America after the Revolution, and they helped finance several American colleges. In fact, many of these schools still conduct lotteries to raise funds for their educational programs, and their names (Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, William and Mary, Union, and Brown) often reflect the names of the people or places that donated the original capital for the institution to be built.

Lotteries are games of chance and they rely on the law of large numbers to determine the winning ticket. In a lottery game, each ticket has a unique number. The odds of winning the jackpot are very small and most players only play for a few dollars at a time. While some people believe that their lucky numbers will bring them good fortune, most realize that they are merely taking a chance and should play responsibly.

In the nineteen-sixties, the popularity of the state lottery exploded. This was the point at which growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Balancing the budget became increasingly difficult for many states, especially those with generous social safety nets, as their populations grew and inflation rose. The only way to balance the budget was to raise taxes or cut services, both of which were very unpopular with voters. The lottery, which offered a low-cost solution that didn’t involve cutting services, suddenly looked very appealing. This, in turn, led to more states beginning to organize their own state lotteries. This is where Cohen’s narrative really gets going. He shows how lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the proposal by insisting that a statewide lottery would float the entire budget, began to narrow their pitch, arguing that it would subsidize just one line item in each state’s budget, invariably education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans.