The 50 Percent Who Play the Lottery


Lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling, with a history that goes back millennia. It’s also one of the most lucrative for governments, with a player base that is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. This demographic makes up 50 percent of Americans who play the lottery. Despite the long odds of winning, many people continue to play. The reason is simple: they want to win.

There is a certain inextricable human desire to gamble that has nothing to do with statistics or probability or even the actual odds of a given game. Lottery marketers understand this and use it to their advantage, dangling the promise of instant riches in a world of inequality and limited social mobility.

Those who have a keen understanding of how lotteries work know the odds of winning are very long. But they go in clear-eyed about it, believing that there’s something to be gained by the effort and the risk. These are the people who play frequently, and often. The ones who spend a few bucks on Powerball tickets each week and buy scratch-off tickets when the jackpots get big. These are the folks that have all sorts of quote-unquote systems that have nothing to do with statistical reasoning, like choosing lucky numbers or shopping at lucky stores at the right time and following the advice of “experts” on how to select their numbers based on patterns.

It is these same people who drive lottery revenue. They are a group that is disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite, but they are the ones who play the lottery at the highest rates in the country. They are a part of the 50 percent of Americans who play, and they make up most of the money spent on these games.

One thing that these lottery players do have in common is a belief in the meritocratic myth that they will eventually make it, and that they can buy their way out of poverty with a ticket or two. That myth is why the lottery has such a powerful draw, and why it will continue to do so for years to come.

Lottery prizes are largely generated by ticket sales, and the larger the pool of ticket purchasers, the greater the prize amount. But some states, such as New York, also generate money through merchandising deals with companies that provide popular products as prizes. These merchandising deals are mutually beneficial, as the companies gain brand exposure while the state lottery gets much-needed cash.

Another factor in the size of lottery prizes is interest rates. When a lottery advertises an enormous prize, the advertised amount is actually based on annuities—how much you would receive if the entire prize pool was invested in an annuity for three decades. This is why, when the interest rate rises, the advertised prize amounts do as well. This is why the lottery is a great way to pay for things such as schools and roads.