The Popularity of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people buy tickets and winners are selected by chance. It is usually sponsored by a state or other organization to raise money. People can also use the word to describe any contest in which someone is selected by chance, such as a beauty pageant or a job interview. The word is derived from the Latin loteria, meaning “fateful drawing.” The first lottery was organized by Roman Emperor Augustus as an amusement at dinner parties. Each guest was given a ticket, and prizes—often fancy dinnerware—were awarded.

In the modern era, many states used lotteries to fund public services such as schools and roads. In the nineteenth century, many of our most prestigious universities were built with lottery funds. Many religious organizations also held lotteries to raise money. In fact, New York City’s first church building was funded by a lottery. The popularity of the lottery was fueled by the desire to avoid taxes and to become rich.

By the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War accelerated, America’s postwar prosperity began to crumble, leaving many states with enormous budget deficits. Suddenly, a state’s social safety net seemed in danger of collapse, and balancing a budget without raising taxes or cutting services was an impossibility for many governments. Lotteries were seen as a way to solve this crisis without provoking the wrath of voters who objected to either option.

Despite this, the popularity of lotteries has not always been correlated with a state’s financial health. A number of studies have shown that people who play the lottery believe their state government needs extra revenue, but this belief is often influenced by the perception that the proceeds will benefit a particular public good. This argument is especially effective in times of stress, when it can be used to fend off threats such as tax increases and cuts in public services.

The modern lottery is a massive business. In the United States, 50 percent of adults buy at least one Powerball ticket every year. The buyers are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. Lottery players spend, on average, one percent of their annual income playing the games.

Cohen argues that this obsession with unimaginable wealth and the dream of winning the lottery is the symptom of a larger crisis in American life. The middle class has diminished, the gap between rich and poor has widened, the retirement pensions and jobs of many Americans have disappeared, the cost of healthcare is skyrocketing, and the old national promise that education, hard work, and a good marriage will ensure a comfortable and happy life for children of all incomes has lost its luster.

The lottery, in its incarnation as an official state enterprise, capitalizes on this despair. Its advertising campaigns, the design of its tickets, and even its math are all designed to keep people buying and playing. In fact, the lottery’s strategy is not all that different from the strategies of cigarette or video-game manufacturers.