The Popularity of the Lottery

A contest based on chance, in which people buy numbered tickets and prizes are awarded to those whose numbers are drawn at random. Lotteries are sometimes used to raise money for public projects.

In the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, Americans ate up lottery tickets like candy. This was partly a response to an economic crisis that wiped out retirement savings and cut into incomes, and that also eroded the national promise that hard work would bring financial security. But there was also something else going on. As the writer Steven Cohen points out, this obsession with improbable wealth, and by extension, our fascination with lotteries, coincided with a decline in the security of the middle class. Jobs were vanishing, health-care costs were rising, and the long-held promise that a solid education and a lifetime of labor would render everyone better off than their parents was beginning to look hollow.

But despite these economic shifts, the popularity of the lottery remains robust. According to the consumer-financial company Bankrate, people who make more than fifty thousand dollars a year spend, on average, one per cent of their income playing it. In contrast, those who make less than thirty thousand dollars a year spend thirteen per cent of their income on lottery tickets. In fact, the only thing that seems to dampen lottery enthusiasm is a sense of how rare it is to win. The answer to that is simple: Lottery officials simply raise the odds by lifting prize caps or adding more numbers (thus making the chances of winning much lower). This is a classic example of what economists call “reversible demand.” The higher the likelihood that you will lose, the more people want to play.