What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn and winners are awarded prizes. Historically, it has been used to finance public works such as canals, bridges, roads, colleges and churches. Today, it is often used to fund sports teams and private enterprises, and the prize money can be enormous. It is also used to raise money for charity and to fund a wide variety of state-sponsored social programs.

In the United States, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have lotteries, and the government collects and pools the money that people pay to buy tickets. The games vary by state but all have a common element: they’re games of chance, and they require people to risk something valuable in order to gain something of value.

Some people win big and others don’t, but everyone knows that they’re playing a game of chance. The problem is that many players don’t realize how much they’re risking or what their odds are. Some people buy one ticket a year and call it quits; others spend a significant percentage of their income on tickets. Those who play the most, Cohen writes, tend to be lower-income and less educated. They are more likely to be nonwhite and male. They play because they think that winning the lottery, however improbable, will give them the chance to escape poverty and improve their lives.

This obsession with the possibility of unimaginable wealth coincided, Cohen argues, with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. Starting in the nineteen-sixties and accelerating through the nineteen-eighties, wages stagnated or fell, job security declined, health-care costs rose, pensions were cut back, and it became harder and harder to make ends meet. As a result, “our long-standing national promise that hard work and education would enable children to do better than their parents’ generation ceased to be true.”

Advocates of the lottery changed their pitch. No longer could they claim that it would float a state’s budget; it had become too expensive for most states to maintain even their minimal social safety nets. Instead, they began to promote the idea that the lottery would help cover a specific line item, invariably a popular government service that was widely viewed as nonpartisan and uncontroversial—education, for example, but sometimes elder care or public parks. This narrower argument made it easier for proponents to sell the idea to voters. But it left the underlying issue unaddressed. In the end, Cohen writes, the lottery is a gimmick that disguises the fact that it’s an inherently regressive and dangerous enterprise. It keeps people from recognizing how much they’re spending and enables them to rationalize their gambling behavior. It’s the ugly underbelly of a system where hope, however slim, is still the best medicine. The word lottery is thought to come from the Dutch word lot (“fate”), but it may also have been derived from Middle English loterie (“the act of drawing lots”). Lottery’s long history shows how often human beings have turned to chance to make the most of life.

Categories: Gambling