Is the Lottery Worth the Risk?


While the lottery offers the chance for a big win, there is also an ugly side: people spend money on tickets even though they know they won’t win. It’s a form of gambling, and the fact that it is often the last resort for those struggling financially makes it particularly pernicious. But how can you know if it’s worth the risk?

Lottery games are one of the most popular forms of gambling. People spent upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021, and the games are promoted by states as a way to raise revenue without especially onerous taxes. But just how meaningful that revenue is for state budgets — and whether it’s a good trade-off for the millions who lose their hard-earned cash — is debatable.

In the post-World War II period, states saw lotteries as a way to fund a wide array of projects without increasing taxes on middle-class and working-class citizens. But if that’s true, how did the states end up with such a large stash of cash?

The answer lies in the history of state governments’ relationship to gambling. State leaders made the mistake of believing that gambling is inevitable and that they might as well capture it by putting out a lottery, writes NerdWallet writer Jason Chartier. The problem with this thinking is that it isn’t true. The rules of probability dictate that you can’t increase your odds by playing more frequently or by buying more tickets. The odds of winning a lottery are based on the total number of available combinations and the probability that any single ticket will be the winner.