The Myth of the Lottery


Lottery is a popular form of gambling, where people pay to have a chance to win a prize. The money raised is often used for public benefits. The practice of lottery-like games dates back to ancient times. They were common in the Roman Empire—Nero was a huge fan–and are mentioned throughout the Bible. Today, most states have a lottery.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to the popularity of lotteries, especially in the United States. First, there’s an inextricable human urge to gamble. Then there’s the lure of a big jackpot, and the way that people spend a significant percentage of their incomes buying tickets. And finally, there’s a pernicious message that we’re all going to get rich someday, as if the only thing standing between us and financial security is a little bit of luck.

It’s no secret that the odds of winning the lottery are slim. Yet it’s a hard fact to grasp, largely because of how much people buy into the myth that we’re all going to be rich someday. Lottery advertising campaigns rely on two messages primarily. The first is to make the lottery seem wacky and weird, in order to obscure its regressivity. The second is to convince voters that the proceeds from a lottery will cover one line item in a state budget, typically education but sometimes elder care or public parks or veterans’ aid. Taking this narrow approach, legalization advocates have found it easier to argue that a vote for the lottery is not a vote for gambling but for a particular service.