The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are Long

The odds of winning the lottery are long. Yet many people play. The reason has something to do with the fact that a lot of people plain old like to gamble. But there’s more to it than that: Lotteries are dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And there are a couple of messages that state-run lotteries are sending out, too.

One is that buying a ticket makes you a good citizen, that it’s your civic duty to contribute to the state’s revenue stream. Another is that lottery money benefits the poor. But both of those messages are misguided. The fact is that the vast majority of lottery proceeds go to wealthy winners. And when you’re talking about winning a billion dollars or more, that means the average winner isn’t likely to be able to afford a decent lifestyle even with all of that money.

A more accurate message that state-run lotteries are sending is that you’re helping the public by playing the lottery, even if you’re not a wealthy winner. That’s a fine sentiment, but I’ve never seen this reflected in any context about how much lottery revenue the state gets, and what percentage of overall state revenue it represents.

Regardless of how much you play, there’s always a risk that you won’t win. But if you don’t want to risk losing your hard-earned cash, there is a way out: You can ask the computer to pick your numbers for you. Most modern lotteries offer this option, and there’s usually a checkbox or section on the playslip for you to mark that you’re willing to accept whatever number the computer chooses.