What’s the Biggest Problem With the Lottery?


The lottery is an age-old tradition, with the first recorded instance being a census in the Old Testament, when Moses was instructed to divide the land in Israel by lot. Roman emperors also used lotteries to distribute property and slaves. Lotteries became popular in ancient Rome, when the 14 worst teams of the time held a lottery to decide which players would be picked at the draft. The winning team would pick the best college talent from among those that were left over.

Many lotteries are financial in nature. Players purchase tickets for a certain amount of money, then choose a group of numbers to be randomly spit out by a machine. If enough numbers match the random selection, they win prizes. Upon winning, the winner may choose between a lump sum payment or annuity payments. While the former is the more common option, a lump sum payment may be more tax-efficient. Most states tax lottery winners.

The lottery has grown in popularity throughout the United States, accounting for forty to fifty percent of the total global market. In 2003, there were 75 lotteries in Europe, and they made $53.6 million. This made the lottery a success, attracting residents from neighboring states to purchase tickets. By the end of the decade, twelve states had their own lottery systems and it became firmly entrenched in the Northeast. The lottery also grew in popularity because it allowed states to generate revenue without raising taxes, and it was able to attract Catholic populations, who generally tolerated gambling activities.

One of the main issues with the lottery is that players disregard the laws of probability. The odds of selecting six out of 49 winning numbers are fourteen million to one. According to Ian Stewart, a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, “the lottery is a testament to public innumeracy”.

The Gallup Organization conducted a nationwide survey in December 2003, and it found that 49% of adults and fifteen percent of teenagers had bought a lottery ticket in the previous year. Other statistics show that people favor state lotteries for the cash prizes that they offer. In 1999, 75% of adults and eighty percent of teenagers approved of state lotteries for this reason. So what’s the biggest problem with the lottery? And how do we fix it?

One study from the University of Georgia found that the unclaimed winnings were allocated differently among state and national studies. The New York lottery, for example, requires that the unclaimed prize money go back into the prize pool. Other states, however, allocate the funds to state programs or lottery administration costs. For instance, in Texas, unclaimed prize money goes to hospital research and the payment of indigent health care. The Vinson Institute of Government Studies’ researchers found that lower-income people play the lottery because they believe it is the only way out of poverty.