Does Winning the Lottery Make You Better Off?


Lottery is a popular form of gambling, in which numbers are drawn to determine a winner. It is also a common way for states to raise money by selling tickets. In the United States, people spend tens of billions on lottery games each year. But what is it about these games that draws so many people in? And does winning a prize really make a person better off?

The lottery is an ancient practice, attested to in the Bible and used by Roman emperors like Nero as a party game during the Saturnalia. Throughout history, lotteries have been used to give away slaves, property, and even land—as well as to fill vacancies in sports teams among equally matched competitors or for other purposes.

Cohen writes that the modern lottery began to grow popular in the nineteen-sixties as state budgets began to suffer, owing to population growth, inflation, and the cost of wars. It was a time when income inequality grew, retirement and health-care benefits eroded, jobs became less secure, and the old promise that children would be better off than their parents ceased to be true for most.

But state officials promoted the lottery as a painless source of revenue—that is, players voluntarily spend their own money to support public services. This explains why so many states have lotteries. Yet despite their popularity, lotteries aren’t necessarily good for states. They can encourage irrational behavior and lead to harmful social and economic outcomes.