How the Lottery Works and Why So Many Americans Can’t Stop Playing


In the United States, lottery sales generate billions of dollars a year. They help fund school districts, build roads, and provide police departments with extra cash. And yet, for most people who play, the odds of winning are astronomically low. What gives? In this article, we look at how the lottery works and why so many Americans can’t stop playing.

The lottery has been around for thousands of years, and the word itself derives from the Latin loteria, which meant “sheepskin.” Early players would roll dice to determine who got a piece of meat, clothing, or gold. Later, they’d buy numbered tickets and hope to win prizes like land or other goods. Some lotteries were run by churches, while others were organized by state governments, sometimes to raise money for public works projects.

Today, many states and cities operate their own lotteries, but there is no national lottery organization. Instead, several state lotteries form consortiums to create games spanning larger geographic footprints and offering bigger jackpots. Two such games, Powerball and Mega Millions, are offered in nearly all jurisdictions that offer lotteries. While these partnerships create large jackpots, they also limit the pool of possible winners to the same population segment that tends to be drawn by lottery ads.

For the most part, lottery advertising targets middle-class whites who are often unaware of the racial and economic effects of their play. In the early nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, this trend collided with a state-level funding crisis that grew out of both inflation and the costs of running the Vietnam War. Suddenly, it became hard to balance a budget without raising taxes or cutting services.

At the same time, a growing number of white voters began to support legalization of the numbers game because they figured that the profits would mainly go to black gamblers. This argument, however flawed, disregarded long-standing ethical objections to gambling and gave moral cover to people who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to pocket a little extra cash.

In the end, most states have managed to keep lottery profits in-house, even if they’ve lost some of their luster as a morally responsible form of government. But that doesn’t mean they’re above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction: everything from the design of ticket fronts to the math behind the winnings is designed to make lottery plays more addictive.

It’s not just that the lottery is a skewed form of gambling; it’s a skewed form of capitalism, too. Unlike private businesses, the lottery isn’t held up to the standards of truth in advertising or consumer protection laws. Instead, it’s allowed to exploit the vulnerabilities of people who aren’t aware of or don’t care about the shady business practices at play. And, as the examples of Florida and Texas show, that’s been a recipe for disaster.