The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are Getting Worse

The lottery is a game of chance, and most people know that the odds are long. But still, they play. The hope that they’ll win — the big one, the life-altering prize — is real, and it drives lottery ticket sales. The problem, as journalist Michael Cohen points out in this article for New York magazine, is that the odds of winning are getting worse and worse as jackpots grow to absurdly newsworthy levels.

Unlike most games of chance, the lottery is not just a game for rich people – anyone can play, and your current financial situation plays no part in whether you’ll win or lose. This, along with the fact that there are many ways to play the lottery (you can buy tickets online, over the phone, or in person), has made it a hugely popular game in the United States.

It’s easy to see why: The jackpots are massive and the prizes can change a person’s whole life. In a world where jobs are disappearing, incomes are dropping, and the cost of living is rising, it’s easy to see why a few thousand dollars could make all the difference.

Lottery first became a common form of raising money for public projects in the Low Countries around the fifteenth century, when it was used to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. It then spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery in 1567. The word itself is thought to come from Middle Dutch loterie, a calque on Old French loterie “action of drawing lots” (see here for more).

As the games’ popularity rose, they began to become a major source of revenue for state governments. By the nineteen-sixties, however, the era of prosperity was beginning to fade, and for many states — especially those that offered generous social safety nets — balancing budgets became increasingly difficult without either raising taxes or cutting services, both options extremely unpopular with voters.

In this context, the modern lottery was born. Originally, it was a way to raise money for public works, but the prize pool quickly grew to include things like cash, cars, vacations, and houses. As state budgets became increasingly constrained, lotteries were promoted as a way to give citizens a chance at a better future.

Defenders of the lottery argue that it is not a tax on stupid people, but a tax on economic turmoil. They point out that lottery spending increases as unemployment and poverty rates rise, and that it is marketed heavily in neighborhoods that are poorer, black, or Latino. But Cohen argues that these concerns ignore the reality of how the lottery actually functions. While there are valid concerns about gambling, he contends that they’re irrelevant to the lottery’s growth. Its success is the result of a deep, human need for hope, and it’s a trend that seems likely to continue. Click here to read the full article from New York magazine.