Is Winning the Lottery Worth the Risk?


There are plenty of people who, despite the fact that they know the odds are long and they’re not going to win, buy lottery tickets anyway. They’ve come to the logical conclusion that for them, the disutility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the combined utility they expect to get from the ticket: entertainment value, or some other non-monetary gain. They’ve also convinced themselves that winning the lottery will solve all their problems, despite the fact that God forbids covetousness (Exodus 20:17).

In America, the lottery is a fixture of society. Americans spend upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year, and state governments promote the games as ways to raise revenue. The message is that even if you lose, you’re doing your civic duty to the state. But it’s not clear how meaningful that revenue is in broader state budgets and whether the trade-offs to the people who play are worth it.

Lotteries are a form of gambling that involves drawing numbers at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw them, while others endorse them to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. Privately organized lotteries have been around for centuries, but they became popular in the colonial era. The Continental Congress used lotteries to raise money for the American Revolution, and the early American colonies used them to fund a variety of public projects, including roads, libraries, churches, schools, and colleges.

The earliest known lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, as recorded in town records in Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges. The winners were given prizes in the form of goods or money. During the 1700s, public lotteries were used in several colonies to help finance construction of colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia.