Is the Lottery Fair?

A lottery is a game in which participants pay money to win prizes by chance. Most often, a lottery gives away cash prizes, but it can also give away goods or services such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. Lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling, and it has a long history. The Old Testament and the Bible both mention the use of lotteries, and Roman emperors used them to distribute property and slaves. In colonial America, lotteries were common and played a major role in financing roads, canals, libraries, schools, and churches. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British during the American Revolution.

In the modern era, lottery revenue has fueled state governments with billions of dollars. This income is primarily derived from the sale of lottery tickets, but also includes money from sports betting and other forms of gambling. The revenue has provided an important safety net for the poor and middle class and helped reduce reliance on general sales taxes. In an anti-tax era, the lottery has become an essential source of government funding.

But there is a problem with this arrangement. Lottery revenue is heavily concentrated among those who can afford to play. It has been estimated that the top 1% in the country spends more on lottery tickets than the bottom 50% combined. The money generated by the lottery is a substantial chunk of state revenues and, for some states, represents almost all of their non-military spending. The regressivity of lottery play is not something that state officials are eager to discuss, given the pressure to increase ticket sales and prize amounts.

There are two messages that lottery commissions try to send: that lottery playing is fun and that people should not be judged for what they do with the money they win. The former message is coded into the advertisements, which make playing the lottery seem like a silly game and obscure its regressivity by showing people having fun with it. The latter message, though, is more complicated. It is based on the belief that the lottery provides a “good thing” by making people feel better about themselves.

Whether this feeling is true or not, it is hard to argue that the lottery is fair. As illustrated by the chart below, which shows how often each lottery application was awarded a prize, the odds of winning are very long. The color of each cell in the table reflects the number of times an application row or column was awarded its position. The fact that the colors are relatively close to each other indicates that, for the most part, the lottery is unbiased. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that some applications are awarded the same position more frequently than others. The reason is that the lottery depends on chance, and that chance does not favor anyone or anything over another.