The Odds of Winning the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated to people in a way that depends entirely on chance. Examples include a drawing for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. People spend billions of dollars annually on lottery tickets, largely because they believe that winning the lottery will provide them with the money they need to live better lives. But there are important things to keep in mind about lottery odds and how it works.

Whether you play the Powerball or the Pick 3, you know that your chances of winning are very low. Yet, millions of Americans play the lottery every week, spending an estimated $100 billion annually. Some people are able to rationally assess their odds of winning and decide that it’s worth the gamble. Others, however, don’t. These people often believe that the lottery is their last, best, or only chance of a better life.

The history of lotteries dates back centuries. They were popular in the Old Testament, where Moses was instructed to take a census of Israel and divide land by lot; they were also used by Roman emperors for property and slave giveaways. They spread to America with English colonists, despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. While the initial reaction was mainly negative, by the end of the Revolutionary War states had to rely on lotteries to raise money for a wide range of projects. In a letter to Alexander Hamilton, the Continental Congress’s founder, he argued that “everybody is willing to hazard a trifling sum for the opportunity of considerable gain,” and that “many will prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning little.”

Although many states have banned lotteries since the nineteenth century, in recent years they have revived this form of gambling. In many cases, they are promoted as a way to boost state revenue without raising taxes or cutting services, an argument that Cohen supports. But he notes that the increase in lottery revenues is a tiny fraction of state budgets, and that state officials are not making the most of this source of revenue.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery emerged in the nineteen-sixties, when the rapid growth of social safety net programs and rising inflation collided with a crisis in state funding. It became increasingly difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, and they turned to the lottery as a way to do so without angering voters. He points out that lottery revenues have soared as incomes have fallen, unemployment has increased, and poverty rates have risen. The result is that a growing number of people, especially those with low incomes and lower education levels, are playing the lottery. They are the ones who are disproportionately represented in advertising and who are most likely to lose their money. Moreover, the odds of winning are not improving; they are getting worse.