The Ubiquity of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which participants buy lots and one of them is randomly selected to win a prize. People often choose numbers based on significant dates or patterns (like 1-2-3-4-5-6). The odds of winning a lottery are very low, but people are willing to hazard “trifling sums” in the hopes of making big gains. “People are willing to gamble a small amount for a good chance of much greater gain,” Alexander Hamilton wrote, and the lottery is an example of that principle.

The modern lottery came into being in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, when a crisis in state budgeting collided with a wave of tax revolt that had swept America. State governments faced the choice of raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were deeply unpopular with voters. So, the states turned to the lottery in search of a revenue stream that would not spark a revolt.

It turns out that lotteries are extremely effective at generating revenue for state governments. They are also popular with the poor, who spend a higher percentage of their income on tickets than those with more money (although, as the figure below illustrates, wealthy people play fewer games).

In addition to the fact that super-sized jackpots attract attention and boost sales, Cohen argues that the ubiquity of the lottery has had another consequence: it has contributed to a national obsession with unimaginable wealth. This obsession has coincided with a decline in economic security for many Americans, as income inequality has increased, job security has eroded, health-care costs have skyrocketed, and the old promise that hard work will pay off is now largely out of reach for most working people.