The Lottery Commission’s Misguided Message

A lottery is a game of chance that can be used to distribute something limited and desirable, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. It also can be a recreational activity, like a sport or a financial one in which players pay for tickets, select groups of numbers or have machines randomly spit them out and win prizes if enough of their tickets match those drawn by a machine.

Although many people buy lottery tickets as a low-risk investment, the odds of winning are incredibly slim. And for many people, the purchase of a ticket entails foregone savings, such as on retirement or college tuition. Lottery jackpots tend to grow to eye-catchingly large amounts, which encourage more ticket purchases and generate free publicity for the games.

Lottery commissions are aware of these pitfalls and have moved away from the message that playing the lottery is fun and that scratching a ticket provides entertainment value. Instead, they rely on two messages primarily: that the lottery is regressive and that people who play often aren’t serious gamblers.

In fact, the vast majority of lottery players are in the bottom quintiles of income, who don’t have much discretionary money to spare. They might buy one ticket a year, or more than that if they think they have a chance of winning. In the meantime, they contribute billions to government receipts and spend far more than they’ll probably ever win.