The Hidden History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which bettors pay money for a chance to win a prize. The prize amount depends on how many numbers or symbols match those drawn by a random selection process. The prize may be a cash sum or goods. In the United States, most states have lotteries that are legalized.

People like to gamble, and lottery marketers capitalize on that. They promote the jackpots as being so large that the odds of winning are tiny, and they tell potential players that this is a great way to make money quickly. The result is that people spend $50, $100 a week, and they have no idea that the odds are terrible. This is not an anomaly; it is the nature of gambling.

But the real reason that state governments endorse and promote lotteries is not because of a desire to help people win big prizes. It is because of a desire to extract money from the general population through hidden taxes that are not seen as such. These taxes are then used to fund programs that the citizens would not support if they knew how their money was being spent. For example, a lottery could be used to award units in a subsidized housing complex or kindergarten placements in a good public school.

The modern lottery, Cohen argues, came into being in the nineteen-sixties as states realized that their social safety nets were growing and becoming more expensive to run. As inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War started to take their toll, it became clear that balancing the budget was going to be very difficult, unless states cut services or raised taxes, which they knew would be very unpopular with voters.

So state governments turned to the lottery, which was seen as a way to attract black numbers players and help the state balance its books without imposing taxes on white voters. This logic dismissed longstanding ethical objections to gambling, arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well get some of the profits. It also gave moral cover to those who thought that legalizing the lottery would reduce black numbers players’ friction with the police, who often interrogated and arrested them for playing numbers games.

It turns out that lottery play is more addictive than the authors originally thought, and that it actually leads to a downward spiral in people’s financial security. People who are poor spend more of their income on tickets, and the odds of winning are far worse than people might imagine from a glance at a billboard. Rich people buy fewer tickets, and their purchases represent a much smaller percentage of their incomes, so they have less to lose. But there’s more to it than that; the lottery dangles instant riches in front of a population with limited social mobility, and that is what draws so many in.