The Darker Side of the Lottery

The lottery is a big business. People in the United States spent upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021, making it by far the most popular form of gambling. The reason for this is clear enough: Lotteries offer the allure of a quick win and instant riches in an era of limited opportunities and diminished social mobility. But there is a darker underbelly to this game, and it has everything to do with the irrational sense of hope that drives so many people to spend their hard-earned money on lottery tickets.

There are, of course, many ways to play the lottery. There are math-based strategies that seek to find patterns in winning numbers, and there are those who raise money by enlisting investors in the hopes of winning big. One man, Stefan Mandel, used this strategy to win 14 times before he finally broke even after paying out all his investors. But these strategies aren’t for everyone, and even if you do have some mathematical savvy there is a chance that the luck of the draw won’t work out in your favor.

A basic rule of the lottery is that only a portion of the money is paid out in prizes, and the rest of the money is used to cover expenses. That usually includes profits for the promoter, costs of promotion, and taxes or other revenues. In some lotteries, the value of the prize is predetermined and is based on the number of tickets sold, while in others, the total prize value is determined by subtracting the profits from the total pool.

It is true that super-sized jackpots drive lottery sales, and they also earn the games a windfall of free publicity on newscasts and websites. But they can also increase the chances that a winner will split the prize with anyone else who picked the same numbers. One woman who won the Mega Millions jackpot in 2016 did so by selecting her children’s birthdays and a sequence that hundreds of other players may have picked, such as 1-2-3-4-5-6.

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to the lottery, from how much the prizes are worth to whether we should be using taxpayer dollars for such a speculative activity. For now, though, the big question remains: How meaningful is the revenue that the state collects by promoting these activities? And is it really worth the trade-offs to those who lose their hard-earned money?