The Odds of Winning a Lottery

The idea behind lottery is simple: You pick a series of numbers and hope that some of them match those drawn at random. The more of your numbers that match, the bigger the prize you win. But the odds of winning can vary wildly, depending on the price of the ticket and how many tickets are sold.

Lotteries were a fixture in early American life, a way for governments to raise funds for anything from paving streets and building wharves to financing Harvard and Yale. Even George Washington sponsored a lottery to fund the construction of a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In this era of tax revolt, politicians embraced the lottery as a “budgetary miracle,” Cohen writes, a way for states to make hundreds of millions appear from nowhere. In doing so, they ignored the fact that lottery profits were a regressive form of taxation. They disproportionately hit low-income communities and boosted state coffers just as the country’s economic boom of the late twentieth century was drying up federal dollars and leading to a fiscal crisis.

Defenders of the lottery sometimes cast it as a “tax on stupidity,” arguing that players either don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or simply enjoy playing. But, as Cohen shows, this line of reasoning ignores the facts that lottery sales increase in response to economic downturns and that ads for lottery products are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods where incomes are lowest and unemployment is highest.