How We Think About and Talk About the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn and people with the winning number or group of numbers win a prize. When there is a high demand for something that is limited, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school, lotteries are run to make the process fair for everyone. The financial lottery is a popular example; players pay for a ticket, usually for $1, select a group of numbers or have machines randomly spit them out, and then win prizes if enough of their numbers match those randomly selected by a machine.

Many states promote their lottery games as a way to raise revenue for a variety of public usages, including education. In fact, lottery sales account for more than half of the money collected by state governments through gambling. In 2021, Americans spent over $100 billion on tickets, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. But how meaningful this revenue is to broader state budgets, and whether the trade-off to the people who lose money is worth it, is a matter of debate.

Some economists argue that the purchase of lottery tickets can be explained by decision models based on expected value maximization. Others argue that the lottery is more than just a gamble; it’s an activity in which people can indulge their fantasies of becoming rich and, therefore, a type of consumption that is not captured by standard economic models.

I have talked to a lot of lottery players, people who play the lottery regularly and spend $50 or $100 a week on tickets. They defy expectations that they are irrational and should be duped; instead, they talk about the fun of scratching off their tickets and how much they enjoy imagining themselves as millionaires. These people, and the fact that their purchases are a part of American culture, raise some important questions about how we think about and talk about the lottery.