The Dangers of Playing the Lottery

In the immediate post-World War II period, states were building their social safety nets and had to bolster their revenue streams. It was this need to make money that prompted many states to enact lotteries. States saw that people are going to gamble anyway, so they might as well capture this gambling and get some revenue out of it. The idea was that this would be a fairly painless way to collect taxes.

Lotteries are incredibly popular with Americans, with 50 percent of people buying at least one ticket per year. But the players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. And despite the long odds, these people still play because they believe there’s a small sliver of hope that they could change their life with a lottery win.

This is a dangerous game. It gives the false impression that a person can become rich by just plunking down money on a scratch card, and that this is a meritocratic opportunity in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. It’s also a very expensive way to buy the prospect of riches, since most winners end up bankrupt within a few years of winning.

The best advice to give lottery players is that they should use the money they’d otherwise spend on a ticket to build an emergency fund or pay off debt. It’s better to do that than to put it into a lottery machine, where your money might disappear forever.