The Darker Side of Lottery Profits

In a time when inequality and limited social mobility are so pervasive, lotteries offer the hope of instant riches. That’s one reason they’re so popular. But there’s also a more subtle, darker side. When we see billboards for the Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots, we’re being lured by an inextricable human urge to gamble. But lotteries are doing a whole lot more than that, and it’s important to understand what they’re doing.

Lotteries have long been a favorite source of government revenue. They’ve funded road construction, public buildings, and military operations. They’ve even helped finance the settlement of the first English colonies in America. While a lottery is not necessarily an indicator of the state’s fiscal health, it can often win broad public approval by selling itself as a source of money for the general welfare. For example, lottery revenues are frequently earmarked for education and other public projects. In turn, this broad appeal gives lottery organizers a powerful ally against critics who argue that it’s immoral for a state to subsidize gambling.

But the fact is, the odds of winning a lottery are very long. And while many people have all sorts of quote-unquote systems about picking numbers that they think are lucky, or going to certain stores to buy tickets, or playing the same sequence of numbers over and over again, a clear understanding of mathematics remains the best way to make an informed choice. For the average person, the key is to set aside a small amount of money for lottery entertainment, and to play consistently.