The Problems of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling where numbers are drawn to determine ownership or other rights. The practice was common in ancient times, and it was later adapted by state governments for raising money for towns, wars, colleges, public works projects, and other state-sponsored activities. The modern state-run lottery emerged in the nineteen-sixties as states grappled with shrinking federal subsidies and rising costs for health care, education, and the Vietnam War. State officials, recognizing that taxpayers were highly unlikely to approve higher taxes or cut services, turned to lotteries as an alternative way to fill state coffers.

The success of the new lottery was swift, with most states adopting it within a few years. But, as Cohen shows, despite its broad appeal, the lottery has had some serious problems. These range from its role in promoting compulsive gambling to allegations that it has a regressive impact on lower-income people. In addition, critics point to deceptive lottery advertising and the fact that most winners do not have any real control over their winnings (most prize money is paid in installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxation dramatically eroding the value).

Fortunately for the industry, these criticisms did not deter states from launching their own lotteries. The first was the state of New Hampshire, which established a monopoly in 1964 and inspired thirteen other states to follow suit in less than two years. The resulting lotteries have followed remarkably similar paths, including legislating a monopoly for the state, creating a publicly owned corporation to run the lottery, starting operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, and, due to pressures for additional revenue, progressively expanding in scope and complexity.

In his book, Cohen also explains how state-run lotteries are designed to promote certain types of behaviors. For example, to increase the odds of winning, players often choose numbers that end in the same digits or in consecutive sequences. But this strategy reduces the likelihood of winning by eliminating the largest possible combinations. Instead, Cohen recommends combining a few of the most popular numbers and trying to hit a “sweet spot”—a total between 104 and 176.

In addition to these tactics, lottery players can also improve their chances of winning by avoiding predictable patterns, playing more frequently, and using “lucky” numbers or numbers that are associated with birthdays or other special occasions. But, as many have learned, even the best strategies do not guarantee success—like any other form of gambling, winning a lottery is all about luck and chance.

Posted in: Gambling