How Random is the Lottery?

The lottery is a state-regulated game of chance in which winning the prize requires a combination of skill and luck. Its purpose is to raise funds for public services without increasing the burden of taxation on lower income citizens, and it is therefore a form of indirect taxation.

In the immediate post-World War II period, when lotteries first started, many states saw them as a way to expand social safety net programs without raising onerous taxes on working and middle class citizens. However, that arrangement ended in the 1960s with the collapse of economic growth and rising inflation.

As a result, most of the lottery’s revenue comes from those who can least afford it and it is thus regressive. To make matters worse, people often have a false sense of meritocracy about the lottery and assume that they will win big someday. As a result, they spend a large portion of their incomes on tickets even though the odds are extremely low.

To understand how random a lottery really is, you can use a technique called expected value. This calculation tells you how much the lottery is worth if it were unbiased. In the figure below, each row represents an application and each column shows the position in the lottery for that application. The color of each cell indicates how many times the application was assigned that position. The fact that most cells have approximately similar colors suggests that the lottery is unbiased, as the number of positions won by each row or column would be roughly the same if the lottery were completely random.