Are the Lottery Profits Worth the Money People Lose?

Americans spend upwards of $100 billion on lottery tickets each year. The proceeds benefit state budgets, but are those profits worth the money people lose? The answer to that question depends largely on how the money is spent.

Many people play the lottery because they just like to gamble. And that’s fine, but lotteries are also dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And that’s not a message people should ignore.

In the US, the vast majority of lottery prizes are won by individuals. People who buy tickets are hoping to win something as small as a free scratch-off ticket or as large as a life-changing jackpot. These big prizes generate a tremendous amount of publicity and attention for the lottery. They also help drive ticket sales by raising the odds of winning a prize to seemingly astronomical levels.

Those who play the lottery often select numbers based on birthdays or other significant dates. But Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman suggests playing a number that is not related to a date or sequence such as 1-2-3-4-5-6 because that will reduce the likelihood of sharing a prize with other players who pick those numbers, he said.

Another way to increase your odds is to try buying more tickets, he added. That could be a good strategy because the probability of winning a prize with just one ticket is relatively low – about 1 in 365 or less than 0.001%. The more tickets you purchase, the higher your chance of winning a prize, assuming that all applications are treated equally.