The Odds of Winning the Lottery

The Odds of Winning the Lottery

The lottery is a game that doesn’t discriminate: it doesn’t care about your race, your ethnicity, your gender or what party you belong to. In fact, the only thing that matters to this game is your number.

People have been playing lotteries since ancient times, from the Roman empire (Nero was a fan) to the American colonists. Originally, they were mostly used as party games at celebrations like the Roman Saturnalia or as a way to divine God’s will. But they soon started being used as a way to raise money for public works. In the seventeenth century, for example, colonial America held several public lotteries to fund the building of roads, canals, churches, colleges and other infrastructure projects, even in the face of strong Protestant prohibitions against gambling.

These early lotteries were not only a form of entertainment, but they also dangled the promise of instant riches. In today’s age of inequality and limited social mobility, this is an especially potent combination. Billboards screaming about the size of the Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot make for an enticing pitch, and even though winning is incredibly rare, it seems that everyone has a shot at becoming rich, if only they buy a ticket.

As a result, the idea of winning the lottery has become an insidious part of our national culture. The average household spends over $80 billion each year on tickets, more than double what it would need to build an emergency savings account or pay down debt. And while those who win might seem to enjoy a temporary windfall, most end up bankrupt within a couple of years.

But there is something else going on with all this lust for the lottery, and it is not good. The obsession with improbable wealth is symptomatic of a sense that life no longer provides real chances of upward mobility, or that the old national dream—that hard work and education will eventually lead to financial security—has essentially ceased to be true.

The fact is that it’s increasingly difficult to rise up out of poverty in a society with stagnant incomes, growing inequality, a dwindling safety net and skyrocketing health-care costs. So many people are desperately searching for a magic bullet that will get them into the middle class, and the lottery seems to be the only option that is available to them. But that’s a dangerous, slippery slope. In the end, it will only make things worse. Instead, we should be fighting for a more realistic vision of opportunity and economic mobility, and working to make sure that every citizen has access to the basic necessities of life. That might be a harder sell, but it would be more honest. And it might help to stop selling the lottery as a silver bullet that can solve all our problems.