The lottery is a hugely popular form of gambling, and it’s an essential part of the American economy. In fact, Americans spend over $80 billion a year on lottery tickets. Despite this, the chances of winning are extremely slim. But why do people keep playing?
It’s partly because we have a strange fixation on unimaginable wealth. The obsession with a multimillion-dollar jackpot coincides with a long-running decline in financial security for working people. Since the nineteen-seventies, income gaps have widened, job security and pensions have eroded, health-care costs have skyrocketed, and we’ve lost sight of the old national promise that hard work would make us all rich.
This change has made many of us less and less secure, and so we look for ways to fill the emptiness with money. And nothing fills that emptiness quite like the fantasy of hitting the big lottery prize.
But what does it mean for people who actually win? The reality is that most of the money will go to taxes. And even then, there’s a very real chance that the winner will wind up bankrupt in a few years.
To help assuage these fears, some states began advertising that a “prize structure” made the odds of winning much better. But this is a misleading message. As economists Dan Ariely and Matthew Nisbet explain, prizes that grow to seemingly impossible sums are designed to increase sales by making the jackpot seem more newsworthy. It’s also true that the higher the jackpot, the more tickets are sold.
In fact, the only way to have a good chance of winning is to play a lot of games. That’s why so many people form syndicates and pool their money to buy large numbers of tickets. It increases their odds, but their payouts are lower each time. And a syndicate can be fun, too — a social group that goes out to dinner together and spends their small winnings on lots of lottery tickets.
Lottery promoters once argued that if gamblers were going to lose their money anyway, the government might as well collect the profits. But that argument ran into a wall of ethical objections, from critics who pointed out that state-run casinos and horse races primarily benefit rich investors and hurt poor ones.
In addition, a growing number of critics argue that the lottery is a form of discrimination, because it disproportionately draws players from lower-income groups, including blacks, Latinos, and Chinese. And it’s not just a problem for minorities — rich whites play the lottery too, and spend far more of their income on tickets than poor people do. As a result, the lottery skews wealth distribution in the country.