The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling that awards prizes to people who match random numbers drawn from a pool. The prizes vary by lottery, but often include cash or goods. In the US, state governments run lotteries. Some have partnerships with private corporations that provide prizes and services such as marketing or ticket distribution. The word lottery is also used to describe other types of gambling, such as sports betting or horse racing. Some states prohibit or restrict gambling, but others endorse it and regulate it to ensure fairness.

The casting of lots for a prize has a long history, going back to the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and to biblical times when it was used to choose everything from who would keep Jesus’s garments to the kingship of Israel. In the early modern period, though, the lottery took on a new form. It grew in popularity when a fiscal crisis prompted states to look for ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting programs, and lotteries appealed to voters’ fear of a life of grinding poverty.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. The six that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah and Nevada—don’t have them because they have other forms of gambling or have religious objections; they also don’t feel the urgency that drove other states to adopt lotteries.

Cohen’s book centers on the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gaming business collided with a crisis in state funding. The costs of an expanding population, inflation and the Vietnam War were sapping state coffers. Many states, which had provided a generous social safety net, found that it was becoming impossible to balance their budgets without raising taxes or making cuts in services—both of which are deeply unpopular with voters.

Lottery advocates argued that the proceeds would help with education and other public services, while the winners’ dream of a multimillion-dollar jackpot could lift them out of a rut of stagnant wages. But studies show that the lottery’s popularity is not connected to a state’s actual financial health. Moreover, the more the odds of winning are lowered, the more people want to play.

The truth, as Cohen demonstrates, is that lotteries are addictive and have become an ingrained part of American culture. The odds of winning are so low that many people believe the prize they would receive is worth taking the risk, and the lottery industry takes advantage of this belief. To that end, state lotteries use a range of strategies, from the design of the tickets to the math behind them, designed to make the games as attractive as possible and keep players hooked. The result is a national obsession with unimaginable wealth that has accompanied, as Cohen argues, the evaporation of the middle class’s long-held promise that hard work and education will lead to material security.