Is the Lottery Worth It?


Throughout human history, people have been drawn to lottery for its entertainment value and the chance to win money. But the way to win is not by luck – it’s by learning about probabilities and proven strategies.

In the early days of lotteries, a winning ticket could mean an extravagant prize, such as dinnerware. These tickets were distributed at parties during the Roman Saturnalia, or as a form of divination (the Bible mentions casting lots for everything from the next king to the garments of Jesus after his Crucifixion). The early history of lotteries is thus marked by inconsistencies.

By the fourteenth century, the practice had spread to Europe and England, where lottery profits helped finance town fortifications and charity for the poor. The British introduced their first official state lottery in 1567, and its profits were used for the “repair of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” By the sixteenth century, the concept had made it to America.

Today’s lottery is a multibillion-dollar enterprise that offers an astonishing array of prizes. It also attracts a diverse audience. For example, Americans spend over $80 billion each year on the lottery and the average household buys more than two tickets a month. But is the lottery worth it?

Cohen traces the rise of state-run gambling in America back to the nineteen sixties, when rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War threatened the stability of many states’ budgets. The states that offered generous social safety nets found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters. Lotteries came to the rescue as a means of raising revenue that was both politically acceptable and easy to explain to voters.

In the beginning, advocates of state-run lotteries argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so it made sense for governments to collect their profits. That logic, which rejected ethical objections to gambling, had its limits, but it gave moral cover to people who approved of lotteries for other reasons. In particular, many white voters supported legalization because they believed that a lottery would draw black numbers players and foot the bill for services they didn’t want to pay for themselves, like better schools in urban areas.

But as jackpots grew, the odds of winning became more and more dismal. And the higher the stakes, the more people wanted to play. So, in response, lottery commissioners began lifting prize caps and adding more numbers—say, from five to six out of fifty—thus making the odds even more one-in-three million.

The best way to know if a scratch-off game is worth playing is to check the website to see how long the game has been running and when the records were last updated. You’ll also want to pay attention to how many different prizes are still available to be won. A group of singletons—meaning that the digits in a specific space appear only once—signal a winning ticket about sixty-nine percent of the time.