What Do We Know About the Lottery?


In early America, where public infrastructure was desperately needed but taxes were a political hot potato, lotteries served as an alternative source of revenue. They were promoted by white voters who, Cohen writes, “knew full well that state-run gambling would primarily attract black numbers players,” and thus would help foot the bill for things like better schools in the urban areas where these voters had recently fled. Lottery profits also supported everything from the construction of Harvard and Yale to the Continental Congress’s attempt to fund a Revolutionary War.

In modern times, lotteries are still a popular fundraising tool for state and local governments, and they also have a powerful impact on individual lives. They can provide a path to a dream home, a luxury car, or even a globe-trotting lifestyle, as demonstrated by the remarkable success of a retired teacher who won seven grand prizes in the multistate Powerball lottery.

But what do we really know about this wildly popular form of gambling? What do we understand about the people who play it and why they do so? And how does it affect society as a whole?

To answer these questions, we talked to experts who have studied lotteries and analyzed the results of the games. Their answers range from the obvious to the surprising and sometimes even controversial.

A basic definition of a lottery:

The main element of a lottery is a drawing that allocates the prize money to winners. This procedure may take the form of a pool of tickets or their counterfoils that are thoroughly mixed by some mechanical means (such as shaking or tossing) for later selection in the drawing. Alternatively, the winning numbers or symbols may be selected by computer.

For the most part, though, the odds of winning a lottery are based on chance, and as the jackpots grow larger, the chances of winning shrink. The result is a paradox that has a long history in American life: the quest for unimaginable wealth, including the chance to hit the lottery, has coincided with declining financial security for most working Americans. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, income gaps widened, pensions and job security eroded, health-care costs climbed, and our long-standing national promise that education and hard work would make children wealthier than their parents ceased to be true.

Regardless of the method or the odds, however, most lottery players know that they are playing for a dream, and a dream requires luck. For many, the only way to win is to play the lottery consistently and often enough to increase their chances. And for some, the key to luck is simply to believe in the game and have faith.