Is the Lottery a Good Idea?

The lottery is a form of gambling in which people buy numbered tickets and prizes are awarded based on chance. For example, a person might win a prize for a unit in a subsidized housing block or a kindergarten placement.

People spend billions on lottery tickets every year and the game has a lot of fans. But is it a good idea?

It depends on the individual, says Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman. “If a person has sufficient entertainment value or other non-monetary benefits from playing, the expected utility of a monetary loss might be outweighed.” But for most people, the answer is no. The lottery is a low-cost way for them to experience some sort of euphoria, Glickman says, and to indulge in fantasies about winning the jackpot and what they would do with it.

The poorest people — those in the bottom quintile of incomes — are not the ones buying the most tickets, but they do spend a larger share of their income on them than other players. That makes the lottery regressive, and it’s not clear whether the money generated by ticket sales is worth the trade-offs that people are making to their own financial security in order to play. But a lot of people still believe that winning the lottery will give them a chance to escape from poverty. And they might be right. But there’s a better way to get out of poverty, too: get a job.