Lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay money to purchase tickets that have a range of numbers, usually from one through 59. The winnings are determined by the percentage of those numbers that match those randomly selected in a drawing. Historically, the lottery was used to raise money for public works and other projects. It was a popular pastime in the ancient world (Nero liked to play) and, even later, in America, where it played an essential role in funding the Revolutionary War. Alexander Hamilton, for example, understood that everyone would “be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain,” and he argued that lotteries could be more effective than taxes at raising needed funds.
In modern times, though, the lottery has become something quite different. It is a form of gambling that has become a proxy for a national obsession with wealth and the idea that anyone, through hard work and diligence, can overcome all odds and achieve greatness. This obsession with wealth has coincided, as Cohen points out, with a decline in financial security for most working Americans, beginning in the nineteen-sixties and accelerating throughout the following decades. As income inequality widened, the gap between the rich and the poor grew, pensions, job security, health-care costs, and unemployment rose, the American dream ceased to be true for most Americans.
As the economic situation deteriorated, states began looking for ways to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services, and the lottery quickly became an appealing option. Lotteries offer the opportunity to gamble with very small amounts of money and win big prizes, and they are able to promote themselves as being “safe” because the prize is a cash sum rather than goods or services. This gives the lottery an aura of legitimacy and makes it more acceptable than, say, a casino.
Moreover, the way state lotteries are run is no different from that of tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers: They use psychology and design to keep people playing. Everything from the color and style of the ads to the math behind the tickets is designed to get people addicted. As a result, the lottery is now more than just an activity; it has become a way of life for millions of Americans.
To make matters worse, lottery commissioners and their advertising firms don’t disclose the real cost of the game to the average citizen. Instead, they rely on two messages: the first is that it’s fun to buy a ticket, and the second is that, even if you don’t win, you should feel good because you did your civic duty by buying a lottery ticket. This sends the message that the lottery is harmless and fun, but it obscures its regressive nature and how much of people’s discretionary income it consumes. This is a false narrative that’s not only untrue but also harmful. It should be stopped. We need a new kind of lottery.