The Odds of Winning the Lottery Aren’t Always What You Think


Whether you’re playing in the hopes of hitting a grand prize or simply trying your hand at a small number of smaller ones, lottery is an activity that appeals to many people. But it’s important to remember that the odds of winning the lottery aren’t always what you might think. In fact, they can be quite dismal. The chances of winning a large jackpot are one in three million, and even the chance of winning a minor prize like a car is only about a thousand to one.

Lottery was a popular activity in early America and, unlike most other gambling, it tended not to tangle with the slave trade. But in a way that is hard to understand, it was a form of social coercion. Lotteries were used to enforce military conscription, commercial promotions in which property was given away by random procedure, and the selection of jurors. And, sometimes, the prizes included human beings. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that included slaves, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, purchased his freedom through a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment slave rebellions.

The modern lottery is a much more sophisticated affair than its ancient predecessors, but it has retained the same core principle: winning a prize requires some chance. Its modern proponents, writes Cohen, argue that if people will gamble anyway, why not let the state profit from it? This argument, though, has its limits. It would require states to also sell heroin, and it gives moral cover to people who support lotteries for less than noble reasons.

For example, in the immediate post-World War II period, when state governments sought to expand their array of services without rousing an increasingly anti-tax electorate, some argued that lotteries could fill in the gaps. These advocates, Cohen argues, saw them not as an anti-tax measure, but as a solution to a problem that they believed to be inevitable: a growing population that demanded more and better things.

The irony, writes Cohen, is that this obsession with unimaginable wealth, including the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot, coincided with a decline in financial security for working Americans. Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, the income gap widened, pensions and health care costs rose, and the national promise that education and hard work could render children better off than their parents ceased to be true for many families. As a result, people came to view lottery winnings as their only shot at getting rich. And so they continued to play.

Categories: Gambling