Lottery is a popular form of gambling wherein participants choose numbers in a drawing for a prize. The practice has a long history, including several examples in the Bible and in the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was also a central feature of the earliest colonies in America, where it helped finance roads, wharves, colleges, churches, and canals.
Lotteries have a special appeal in today’s era of financial anxiety, because people can play them without having to shell out much money. They can purchase a fifty-dollar scratch-off ticket at a check-cashing store or pick up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets while buying groceries at a Dollar General. And state lottery commissions are not above exploiting the psychology of addiction: everything about the games, from the math to the advertising campaigns, is designed to keep players coming back for more.
The main argument used by state officials to promote lotteries is that they are a source of “painless” revenue. The idea is that the public voluntarily spends money for the good of the state and that politicians can use the proceeds as a substitute for raising taxes. This narrative is largely true, but it hides a more sinister truth. Lottery games are addictive and can have harmful effects on the lives of the people who play them.
In the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of the amount of money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. As population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War piled up, it became increasingly difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Politicians began looking at the lottery as a way to raise funds without provoking an angry anti-tax electorate.
Cohen’s book begins with a nod to the history of lotteries, but he focuses chiefly on the modern incarnation. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, Americans’ obsession with unimaginable wealth-including the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot-corresponded with a steady decline in the financial security of average working families. As income inequality widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and Social Security benefits sank, the American promise that hard work and education would lead to a decent standard of living grew increasingly out of reach.
While there is, of course, some inextricable human desire to gamble, most lottery players are not irrational. They know the odds are against them, and they are aware that playing for large prizes can be risky. Still, they can’t resist the lure of the big win. And so, they continue to buy tickets. They may develop quote-unquote systems that are not based in statistical reasoning; they may try to determine the best times of day to buy their tickets or which stores have the most lottery kiosks; they may even follow what is known as a “hot-spot” strategy. But, ultimately, they come to the same realization: the chances of winning are extremely small.