Lottery Gambling and the Public Interest

Lotteries offer a chance to win big prizes for a small investment. The chances of winning are not that great, but people still play them. They do so out of an inextricable human impulse to gamble. They also do it out of a desire to get rich quick, especially in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. But lotteries are doing something more than just dangling the promise of instant riches to the public. They are promoting gambling, and they are doing it at cross-purposes with the general public interest.

Lottery advertising tends to emphasize how easy it would be to win the jackpot, but the odds are much smaller than advertised. And the real odds of winning are even worse for those who play regularly. For example, if you buy a ticket every week, the odds of winning are about 1 in 1,000. If you bought a ticket each month, the odds are about 1 in 10,000. If you played every year for ten years, the odds are about one in 1,000,000.

People can do some things to improve their chances of winning. They can chart the patterns of winning numbers, or they can choose the numbers that have meaning to them such as birthdays or ages. But if they do, they are likely to end up splitting the prize with other winners who chose those same numbers. The result is a smaller share for the winner, and less money for the other players.

Choosing the right numbers can be a difficult task. It is important to remember that the winning numbers are randomly selected and must be drawn from a large pool of possible combinations. It is also necessary to consider how the numbers relate to each other. For example, it is important to avoid selecting numbers that are in the same group or those that have the same ending digits. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends playing numbers that are rarely picked by other players.

The first requirement for lottery success is a state willing to allow it. State legislatures must approve the establishment of a lottery, and the public must vote on whether to authorize it. Once established, state lotteries enjoy broad support: In states that have them, 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. And they have built extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (the usual vendors for lotteries), lottery suppliers (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns), teachers (in those states that earmark some of the proceeds for education), and state legislators themselves (who quickly grow accustomed to the extra revenue).

A state may want to establish a lottery, but it must be aware of the public interest issues that it will create. For one thing, a lottery promotes gambling, which leads to negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers. It also undermines the democratic principle that all citizens have a right to a minimum standard of living.