Why Do People Play the Lottery?


In the immediate post-World War II period, lottery grew as a way for state governments to expand their range of services without especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. It was a solution to an otherwise unsustainable situation. Now, with states struggling to keep up with the rising cost of healthcare and education, the lottery is no longer such a great solution. But it’s still around and continues to attract many players, who often spend an awful lot of money on tickets.

Some people play the lottery because they just plain like gambling, and there’s something to be said for that. But most play for a much more skewed set of motivations. Some believe the lottery is their last, best or only chance at a better life. I’ve talked to a lot of these people, people who have been playing for years, spending $50, $100 a week on tickets. They’re not irrational. They know the odds are bad, but they feel a tiny sliver of hope that somehow this time it’ll be different.

Most of us who play the lottery know that it’s not a smart choice. But we’re bombarded with messages from the lottery commissions that say the lottery is fun, that it’s a game and a little silly, which obscures its regressivity. And then there are all those billboards promoting big jackpots that entice even the most committed gamblers to spend a significant proportion of their income on tickets.