The Low Odds of Winning the Lottery


In the United States alone, lottery players spend billions of dollars every year. Some play for fun; others believe that winning the lottery is their ticket to a better life. Either way, the odds of winning are astronomically low. Despite this, the lottery is a popular pastime and a source of public revenue for state governments.

Lotteries have been around for thousands of years, and the first known lotteries were held in the Roman Empire as a form of entertainment at parties. Guests were given tickets and the winners received prizes such as dinnerware. This type of lottery was also used in the Middle Ages, where it became common to raise money for charity. It also helped to finance European settlement of America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

Cohen writes that defenders of the lottery often cast it as a “tax on stupid people,” implying that players either don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or don’t care. But he argues that the real reason is more complicated: Lottery sales fluctuate with economic conditions. They rise as incomes fall, unemployment grows, or poverty rates increase; they also surge with the amount of publicity a lottery receives. And, like all commercial products, they are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and Black or Latino.

A lottery winner can choose a lump sum or annuity payment. While the lump sum grants immediate cash, an annuity provides steady payments over a set number of years. In both cases, a lottery annuity can be used for long-term investing or as a source of retirement income.