The Benefits of Playing the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement where a prize—such as money or goods—is awarded to a group of people whose entries have a chance of winning. It can be a simple lottery where all participants are assigned an equal chance of winning or a more complex one in which each participant has a specific opportunity to win. The latter is more like a business contest in that the chances of being awarded a prize depend on how well an individual performs.

Lotteries can be used for many purposes, from distributing land to the poor to awarding sports team draft picks. They also raise funds for government services and charities, and are a popular source of gambling revenue. However, some critics argue that the lottery violates ethical principles and leads to corrupt practices. Others say it is a tool for the wealthy and the powerful to buy influence, while others point out that it is a form of taxation.

Despite the moral objections to it, early America developed a fondness for the lottery. Lotteries provided a quick way to generate income without taxation, which was a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who saw them as not much riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who understood that “most men would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of losing little.” Lottery profits helped fund Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and were used by the Continental Congress to help pay for the Revolutionary War.

In the late-twentieth century, state and local governments began to adopt the lottery more broadly for its economic benefits. As Cohen explains, lottery advocates dismissed the morality of gambling, reasoning that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well collect some of the proceeds and use it for public services. These services included, for example, better schools in urban areas where white voters were disproportionately represented.

Advocates of the lottery argued that people who played it weren’t smart enough to know how unlikely it was to win, or they enjoyed it for its own sake. In fact, however, as with most commercial products, lottery sales increase when unemployment and poverty rates rise, and they tend to be marketed in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or Black.

Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman says that choosing numbers with significant dates (such as children’s birthdays) or sequences that hundreds of other people choose can reduce your chance of winning. He recommends picking random combinations or buying Quick Picks instead. And if you do win, opt for an annuity rather than a lump sum. Winners who take a lump sum can blow their winnings by spending irresponsibly and end up bankrupt within a few years. An annuity, on the other hand, will give you access to a small amount of your jackpot every year. That will make it easier to resist the temptation to spend your entire winnings. It may even help you avoid the “lottery curse”.