Is Playing the Lottery Worth It?

Many people play the lottery and it contributes billions of dollars to the economy. Some of the money is spent for entertainment value, but others believe they can change their lives by winning a prize. It’s not surprising that some people find the activity addictive. The fact is that the chances of winning are very low. Whether or not that makes the lottery a worthwhile activity depends on the individual’s expected utility—the amount of happiness (or other non-monetary benefits) he or she receives from playing.

In the United States, lotteries have a long and varied history. They helped finance the colonization of America from England and have been a major source of public works projects throughout the country. Some of the nation’s earliest church buildings, for example, were financed by them. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin used one to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. George Washington sponsored one to build roads across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The modern state lottery is typically set up as a government-controlled monopoly, legislated by law; begins operations with a small number of games; and then progressively expands its offerings. Some percentage of proceeds normally goes to costs associated with organizing and promoting the lottery, and a large share of the remainder is distributed as prizes.

Critics of the state lottery argue that it promotes addictive gambling behavior, and is a significant regressive tax on lower-income families. They also point to research suggesting that it may encourage illegal gambling, and are concerned about the potential for lotteries to foster a sense of hopelessness in some people.