The Public Image of the Lottery

Whether they are playing for big money or simply because it is fun, lottery participants go in clear-eyed about the odds. They understand that the prize is far more likely to be a small one than a large one and they do not take the risk lightly. Many have quote-unquote systems that are completely unsupported by statistical reasoning about lucky numbers and the times of day to buy tickets and the type of tickets to purchase, but they do know that the odds are long.

Most state lotteries follow similar patterns. The state legislatively establishes a monopoly for itself; establishes a public corporation or agency to run it (instead of licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then continually introduces new ones to expand and maintain revenue. During this process, the general public’s view of the lottery as gambling is often obscured and the industry becomes a major source of tax revenues that state government can use for a variety of purposes.

Once a state lottery is established, it develops its own specific constituencies: convenience store owners who sell the tickets; suppliers of the games and services; teachers (in states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); state legislators (who quickly grow accustomed to the additional revenue); etc. As a result, the decisions that lottery officials make are often made in a piecemeal and incremental way and the general public welfare is only rarely taken into account.

As a result of these dynamics, lottery officials are often reluctant to take on the difficult task of changing the rules in order to reduce its popularity among the public or to limit its regressive nature. Instead, they tend to rely on two messages primarily:

First, they tell the public that lottery proceeds are benefiting a particular public good, such as education. This argument is particularly effective during periods of economic stress, when the state government might otherwise be forced to cut back on some essential public service or impose more onerous taxes.

Second, they emphasize that the game is fun and that people enjoy playing it. While there is certainly an element of truth to this claim, it largely obscures the fact that people are not just playing for fun, but are spending substantial amounts of their incomes on tickets in hopes of winning.

While it is true that there are some tips and tricks that can help people improve their chances of winning, the bottom line remains that the odds are long and that most players lose more than they win. This is why it is important to be aware of the realities of the lottery before you play. This article has been edited for length. It originally appeared on The Conversation. For more stories about gambling, click here. The Conversation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes informed discussion about the challenges facing our society.

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Cape Town, South Africa