Is the Lottery Worth the Risk?


The lottery is a game of chance, in which numbers are drawn for a prize. It is the world’s most popular form of gambling, with players spending billions each year on tickets. State governments promote it as a way to raise revenue without provoking the same ethical objections as selling heroin or prostitution. But just how meaningful this revenue is in broader state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-offs to people who lose money on tickets, deserves close scrutiny.

The origins of the lottery are obscure, but we know from a number of historical sources that it has always been played for cash prizes and occasionally for valuable goods like slaves or livestock. In the seventeenth century, colonial America used lotteries to fund both private and public projects. Benjamin Franklin, for example, sponsored a lottery to finance his attempt to buy cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British invasion during the Revolutionary War. Other lotteries raised funds to build schools, libraries, canals, churches, and roads.

In the modern era, the lottery industry has become extremely complex and is now dominated by a handful of large firms that sell tickets online and over the telephone. The states, however, continue to play a key role in determining the frequency and size of prize amounts. They also decide how much of the total pool will go to the cost of organizing and promoting the lottery, and whether to balance the odds of winning with offering a few large prizes or many smaller ones.

Lottery players are often swayed by the false promise that life will be better if they can only win. This is a form of covetousness that violates the Bible’s command not to covet (Exodus 20:17; Ephesians 5:10). It is also dangerous to rely on the lottery as a source of income because it is not sustainable over the long term and can cause financial disaster.

Most lottery games involve guessing a fixed quantity of numbers within a range, such as six from one to fifty-nine or five from one to forty-three. The odds of winning are very low, but the popularity of the games demonstrates that human beings are willing to wager small sums for the chance of a big payout.

The lottery industry is booming. Americans spend over $100 billion a year on tickets. But if we want to improve our lives, we should stop spending on the lottery and instead save for emergencies and pay down credit card debt.

The first recorded lotteries in the West were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with towns raising money for town fortifications and poor relief. The prizes were usually items of unequal value, such as fine dinnerware. In later centuries, lotteries became more widespread as states cast around for a way to raise revenues without upsetting an increasingly anti-tax electorate. Eventually, they all adopted a model that resembled the European system: states legislated a monopoly; established a government agency or public corporation to run it; began operations with a limited number of simple games; and grew rapidly as demand for tickets increased.