Why Are Lotteries So Popular?

In a lottery, one or more prizes are awarded by chance to people who purchase tickets. The lottery industry has a long history, with early lotteries used to fund the founding of English colonies in America and to finance other public projects, including paving roads and building universities. George Washington sponsored a lottery to alleviate his crushing debts, and Benjamin Franklin started one to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia have state lotteries.

Lotteries are a common feature of modern life, and their popularity has risen steadily. But the prevailing wisdom about them, as reflected in public policy, is not that they are good for society; rather, it’s that they’re a painless way to collect taxes.

While some people do win the lottery, they do so rarely. And when they do, their winnings are typically dwarfed by the costs of purchasing tickets. The result is that state governments, which have a constitutional duty to serve their citizens, often subsidize the losses of the rest of us.

Lottery officials promote two main messages, which they believe help to explain why lotteries are so popular. The first is that the money that bettors invest in tickets goes back into the pool of prize money, and some percentage of it will be awarded to winners. This message obscures the regressivity of lottery proceeds and distracts from the fact that they are gambling, Chartier says.