The Low Utility of the Lottery

The lottery is a popular way to raise money for public-works projects, education, and charity. Its roots go back centuries, with the drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights recorded in ancient documents. But lottery games we know today are a lot different, with state-run lotteries offering gaudy tickets that look like nightclub fliers spliced with Monster Energy drinks and enticing jackpot prizes such as a luxury home or a trip around the world. These lotteries are a big business for states, which collect billions in ticket sales and prizes from players. But that revenue comes from somewhere, and research suggests it disproportionately comes from low-income people, minorities, and those with gambling addictions.

Lotteries are popular among the general population because they offer a chance to win a large prize without paying taxes or doing much work. But these games are not without cost: Organizing and advertising a lottery costs money, and a percentage of the pool goes to administration and profit. The rest is left for the winner—or, in some cases, a group of winners. That raises the question: Should the public support a system that offers such low utility to some?

Despite a long history of opposition from conservative Protestants, lotteries have become a fixture in American life. They accounted for half of the nation’s revenue in 1776 and helped fund George Washington’s mountain road, Benjamin Franklin’s cannons during the Revolutionary War, and John Hancock’s rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston. They were also used to finance colleges, townships, and public-works projects in the new country.

In addition to traditional scratch-and-win games, many lotteries promote themselves by teaming up with sports teams and other brands to give away merchandise as prizes. This merchandising strategy benefits the companies, which get exposure to a wide audience, and lottery operators, which can boost sales by associating their games with celebrities or popular products. The New Jersey Lottery, for example, offered a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as one of its top prizes in 2008.

While many lottery players use numbers that have sentimental value (like birthdays or anniversaries), it’s important to remember that every number has the same chance of being chosen. Glickman advises playing numbers that are less common and avoiding those in close proximity to other frequently played numbers, which increases your chances of winning by reducing the number of other people with the same numbers. He also recommends purchasing more tickets to improve your odds, though that won’t increase your chance of winning by much.

If you’re a lucky lottery winner, consider spending some of your winnings on a splurge that’s good for you. If you’re not, don’t worry — there’s always next time.