The Official Lottery is a Popular Form of Gambling, But the Odds Are Slim

The official lottery is a popular form of gambling, but the odds of winning are slim. People spent more than $100 billion on tickets in 2021. It’s the biggest form of gambling in the country. But there’s a lot more going on than just buying a ticket and hoping for the best.

The lottery started to take off in the 1800s. Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in Charleston, won the local lottery and used it to buy his freedom. That triggered a wave of moral and religious concern that turned the tide against gambling of all forms. And then there was the issue of corruption, with lottery organizers scheming to sell tickets and abscond with the money without awarding prizes.

But even when the odds are stacked against you, there’s this inextricable human urge to gamble, says Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross. “I think it’s partly a matter of innate human nature,” he tells NPR. “Humans have a hard time understanding risk when it’s very rare.”

But there are other issues. In tough times, lotteries prey on the poor, says David Just, an economics professor at Cornell University. He says that when the economy is down, low-income people are more likely to make risky spending decisions such as purchasing lottery tickets. And that’s especially true when those tickets are promoted with eye-popping jackpots. Lottery commissions know that they’re dangling the hope of instant riches to people who would otherwise be saving and building wealth for the future.