Americans spend upwards of $80 billion on lottery tickets each year. It’s a wildly popular form of gambling and states promote the games as ways to raise revenue for kids’ education or whatever. But how much that money is actually worth to states, and if it’s really worth the trade-off of people losing their hard-earned money, is debatable.
In colonial America, lotteries played a major role in public and private ventures, including the construction of colleges like Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union. Benjamin Franklin even organized a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia.
Yet, despite the fact that the odds of winning are incredibly slim, the lottery continues to be a popular pastime with many Americans. It’s a combination of the “meritocratic” belief that we all stand to get rich if only we buy enough tickets, and an insatiable appetite for chance that keeps us buying those tickets.
But there’s something else going on here as well, and it has to do with the way that jackpots are promoted. Super-sized amounts create huge headlines and draw people in with a promise of instant wealth. It’s an appealing idea, but one that has a hidden cost to state budgets and broader economic wellbeing. Especially since so many people who win wind up bankrupt within a few years.