The Lottery – A Low-Risk, High-Reward Investment


A lottery is a form of gambling in which a number is drawn and the winner gets a prize. The prizes are usually cash, merchandise, or services. Some states have legalized the lottery as a means of raising funds for public projects, although the prize amounts are usually predetermined and the profits for the promoter and costs of promotion deducted from the pool before the winners are selected. Some states have also adopted the practice as a way to provide charity for the poor and needy.

In the immediate post-World War II period, when lotteries first became popular in the United States, they were a way for governments to expand their array of social safety net programs without having to raise taxes on the middle class or working class too much. By the late 1960s, however, that arrangement began to crumble as inflation soared and the costs of the Vietnam War mounted. State governments needed a new source of income. The lottery was an easy sell: It could be a low-risk, high-reward enterprise for the state.

To play a lottery, you purchase a ticket that contains a selection of numbers, most commonly one through 59. You can choose your own numbers or they may be picked for you. The numbers are then drawn and the winnings are determined according to the proportion of tickets that contain matching numbers. Some lotteries offer a single large prize, while others award a variety of smaller prizes.

The Bible warns against covetousness, and a lottery is a form of covetousness, wherein money is sought after merely for its own sake. People who play the lottery are lulled into a sense that they will solve all their problems with a big win, when in reality God wants us to earn our wealth through diligent work: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 24:5).

As a risk-to-reward investment, lottery plays are a shaky proposition. Players spend billions in government receipts that they might have saved for retirement or their children’s college tuition, and the chances of winning are minuscule. Yet many see purchasing a lottery ticket as the lowest-risk option for their money.

The reason that lotteries are so skewed in favor of the rich, Cohen concludes, is that they dangle the hope of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility. Billboards that feature Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots communicate the message that the only thing standing between you and a fortune is your luck. For the average player, that’s about as believable as the national promise that hard work and education will ensure you’re better off than your parents. The truth is, of course, that life imitates the lottery: Most of us never hit the jackpot. But for those who do, the experience is still akin to scratching off a magic ticket. This is why it’s important to keep in mind that there are other, less shaky reasons to avoid playing the lottery altogether.