The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is a big business that generates billions of dollars every week. Its players are a diverse group, some of whom spend a large share of their income on tickets each week and believe they have a real chance to change their lives for the better through winning a prize. Many also have quotes-unquote systems, about lucky numbers or stores or times of day or what types of tickets to buy, and they know the odds are long but are still drawn in by the experience.

Lottery commissions and retailers are able to sell these experiences by framing the game as fun and by pushing an image of the state as a generous provider. But this is a lie that obscures the regressivity of the lottery, and it obscures the fact that a large number of people play it in a serious way for years, even spending $50 or $100 a week.

Cohen begins by exploring the roots of modern lotteries, whose rise was catalyzed by states’ growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling and the ferocity of the nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt. As a result, state budgets came under strain and balancing them became more difficult without raising taxes or cutting services—which were both unpopular with voters.

Lotteries were an appealing alternative. They provided a quick, relatively painless way to raise money and the prizes were useful: for instance, a winning ticket could pay for anything from town fortifications to church construction. They also helped fund colonial America’s infrastructure, including the foundations of Yale and Princeton universities.