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Why Do People Play the Lottery?

Whenever people are asked why they play the lottery, they usually respond with some version of “It’s just like a game.” It’s true that lotteries do have a gaming component to them. But there’s a lot more going on than that. Lotteries are dangling the promise of instant riches, which, in an age of inequality and limited social mobility, appeals to people’s inextricable human impulse to gamble. Billboards on the highway touting the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpots entice people to spend money they don’t have.

In fact, the odds of winning are pretty bad—but there is no doubt that a large percentage of players don’t understand the odds or don’t care. Several studies have shown that people are irrational when it comes to gambling. But what’s really surprising is how much more irrational they are when it comes to buying lottery tickets. I’ve spoken with people who have been playing the lottery for years, spending $50 or $100 a week. These people defy the expectations that you might have if you went into a conversation with them—that they are irrational and that they don’t know how bad the odds are.

The evolution of state lotteries has been a classic example of how public policy is made incrementally and with little general overview. Each lottery begins by legitimizing itself with a legal monopoly; establishes a public agency or corporation to run it; starts off small with a few basic games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its offerings of games, prizes, and advertising.

These expansions have often been accompanied by slick marketing campaigns that target specific, narrow constituencies—convenience store owners (lottery ads frequently feature pictures of prize-winning customers); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states where a portion of the revenue is earmarked for education); state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to an extra source of funds); and, of course, compulsive gamblers.

But the most important message that lotteries are relying on is the claim that, even if you lose, it’s okay because it raises money for the state. This argument obscures the regressive nature of state lottery funding and obscures the real harm that is done by the promotion of this form of gambling.

It’s time to change the messaging. Instead of promoting the idea that the lottery is a fun game to play, we should be talking about how it is a harmful practice that disproportionately harms low-income communities and keeps them trapped in vicious cycles of debt and poverty. And then we should be talking about ways to limit state lotteries and promote alternatives that will actually help poor people. In the meantime, we should be making sure that people are getting accurate information about their odds of winning—and not letting them be misled by slick advertising campaigns that obscure how dangerous and regressive this activity truly is.