The Truth About the Lottery


In the lottery, participants pay for tickets and then win prizes if their numbers match those randomly drawn by machines. The concept dates back to ancient times. Keno slips found in the Han dynasty (2nd millennium BC) show a similar process, and the Romans used a variety of lottery-like games during Saturnalian feasts, including the “drawing of wood” (apophoreta). Lottery-style games have been popular in the United States since the immediate post-World War II period, when states needed to expand social safety net services but were not yet able to raise taxes at a rate that would be burdensome to middle class and working people.

Most people who play the lottery understand the odds are bad, but they still spend their money. The reason is simple: they like the feeling of playing. They get a certain pleasure from buying a ticket and watching the numbers pop up on the screen. It’s a fun way to pass the time, and most people don’t think they’re irrational when they spend $50 or $100 a week on a few lottery tickets.

But the truth is that most people don’t know how much of a risk they are taking. They also don’t know that a large percentage of the winnings are paid in taxes, which decreases their real cash prize. For the average player, the expected utility of monetary gains is outweighed by the cost of the tickets.

Lottery profits are used for a wide variety of purposes, but the largest share goes to public education. This is a good thing, but it’s important to remember that lottery funds are not a permanent solution to public education funding problems. In the long run, states need to increase their revenue sources.

Some of the proceeds from the lottery are distributed as scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid to students. Other funds go to support state programs and initiatives, such as the Distinguished Scholars Program. In addition, the proceeds from the lottery are used to purchase special U.S. Treasury bonds called STRIPS (Separate Trading of Registered Interest and Principal of Securities) and zero-coupon bonds. The New York State Lottery buys these bonds to ensure that the payments it makes to winners are backed by a secure source of funds.

Gamblers, including players of the lottery, tend to covet money and the things that it can buy. This is a sin because God forbids covetousness: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to him” (Exodus 20:17). Rather, God calls us to earn our wealth honestly by working hard, as it pleases Him (Proverbs 23:5). It’s also a wise idea to put some of our wealth aside for charity, because it’s the right thing to do (see Matthew 7:11). This is not only the morally correct thing to do, but it will make us happier as well. (See Ecclesiastes 5:10.) But even with this, there is a limit to how much money will satisfy us.