The Problems of the Lottery

In the modern sense of the word, the lottery is a contest in which numbers are drawn at random to determine the winner of a prize. It’s a form of gambling that’s become enormously popular in America, and it can be traced back to the biblical Lottery of the Beans, or to the casting of lots in the Old Testament. But Cohen’s focus is on the state-sponsored version that emerged in the late nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding.

As the economy inexorably weakened after World War II, it became difficult for many states, especially those with more generous social safety nets, to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. And both options proved extremely unpopular with voters.

That’s where the lottery came in, a way for the government to raise money while also keeping tax rates low. New Hampshire began the era of state-run lotteries with the first modern incarnation in 1964, and the phenomenon soon spread to all fifty states.

It’s a lucrative strategy, but one with some serious problems. In a typical lottery, tickets are sold for a small amount of money and the winners are selected by drawing numbers from a large pool. The numbers are completely random, and no set of numbers is more likely to win than another, but the odds of winning are very low, usually around 1 in 4,000. Lottery revenues typically expand quickly after a lottery’s introduction, then level off and even decline, as boredom sets in. To keep revenues up, officials have to introduce a steady stream of new games.

These games tend to appeal to particular segments of the population, including convenience store operators (who sell the tickets) and lottery suppliers, who often make heavy contributions to state political campaigns; teachers, in those states where lotteries are earmarked for education; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue. Lotteries are also very addictive, and officials are not above employing all of the strategies that tobacco and video-game manufacturers use to hook people on their products.

In ad campaigns and on billboards, lottery marketers try to convince people that winning is not just possible but inevitable. In fact, though, it is impossible to predict what will happen, and the likelihood of winning is so low that most players end up losing more than they spend on tickets. In addition, as with all commercial products, lottery sales fluctuate according to economic conditions, with ticket sales rising when unemployment and poverty rates increase and declining when incomes drop. Moreover, as with any commercial product, lottery advertising is targeted at certain neighborhoods, and tickets are most heavily promoted in areas that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. It’s a formula for a vicious cycle that can only end in disaster.