The Lottery Is a Big Business


If you play the lottery, you know that winning the jackpot is not easy. But you may not realize that the odds are much worse than you think, according to Harvard statistics professor Mark Lesser. He says you’re over 20,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to win the Mega Millions jackpot. The odds of winning the Powerball are even worse, at about one in a billion. Yet people spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets each year, making it the world’s most popular form of gambling. State lotteries have grown to be a big business, but critics say they prey on poor and working-class people by offering the false promise of instant riches. The lotteries’ biggest beneficiaries, he adds, are the companies that promote them.

The first European lotteries in the modern sense of the word appeared in the 15th century, when various towns held public lotteries to raise money to fortify defenses or help the poor. Lotteries became widespread in the 17th century, after Francis I of France permitted them, and they played a major role in raising funds for public works projects such as bridges, canals, and churches. They also helped finance the American colonies’ wars against France and the British.

In the immediate post-World War II period, many states adopted lotteries to provide a wider range of public services without increasing taxes on the middle and working classes. While the states may have saved some money on taxes, the costs of running lotteries were borne by taxpayers who, according to Gallup polls, often don’t understand or consider how significant those tax increases are in the context of their budgets.

The early lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for a drawing that occurred weeks or months in the future. Since the 1970s, however, innovations have transformed the industry. Today, most state lotteries offer multiple games of chance and are based on computer-generated numbers instead of scratch-off panels. In addition, new types of games are introduced frequently to maintain or increase revenues.

In the United States, lottery revenues are now more than 20 percent of the states’ general fund, and more than half of Americans purchase lottery tickets. But the fact that people spend so much on these games doesn’t necessarily mean they should. For most, it seems to come down to this: they just plain like to gamble, and the lottery offers an opportunity to do so. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly healthy either. And, in the end, it may not be worth the risks to people’s finances and their mental health. Moreover, the question of whether the money raised by the lotteries is worth it to society as a whole remains unanswered. That’s why the lottery deserves scrutiny.