The Obsession With the Lottery


A lottery is a type of gambling wherein players buy tickets for a prize, such as cash or goods. The winners are chosen through a random process of drawing numbers. The term derives from the ancient practice of casting lots for decisions and fates, but modern lotteries are state-sponsored games. The prizes for these games may be anything from money to goods to subsidized housing. Despite the fact that there is a certain amount of risk associated with playing lottery, the game has become immensely popular and profitable in recent decades.

In his book, Cohen argues that the rise of lottery popularity coincided with a general decline in financial security for American working people. Beginning in the nineteen seventies and accelerating in the nineteen eighties, incomes stagnated, unemployment rose, health-care costs soared, job security deteriorated, retirement savings disappeared, and the dream of ever-increasing wealth began to seem less and less achievable. The obsession with the lottery, he writes, is an expression of that despair.

The first state-sponsored lotteries were recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where they were used to raise money for town repairs and to help the poor. The word lottery is probably derived from the Middle Dutch word lotinge, which likely comes from the verb to throw (lot).

Cohen points out that the popularity of lotteries grew even as states were struggling to balance budgets. With inflation and population growth squeezing state coffers, balancing the books became increasingly difficult for many governments, especially those that provided generous social safety nets. It was also extremely unpopular to raise taxes or cut services, so politicians searched for a solution that would allow them to spend more while not alienating voters.

When they found the lottery, they were struck by its appeal. It allowed voters to feel they were spending their own money for the public good, and it was a source of “painless revenue” that didn’t smack of direct taxation. The idea that a little bit of luck could change your life for the better is a seductive one, and as the prizes got bigger and the odds of winning diminished, the lottery became even more appealing.

Many critics of the lottery argue that it is a form of hidden taxation. It is true that the poor are disproportionately represented among lottery players, and they often find themselves draining their small incomes on ticket purchases. But this is not necessarily because they play for the big jackpots, but because they see the lottery as their only hope of a better life. In fact, if expected utility maximization was the only factor in decision making, lottery players would not be buying tickets. But they do because of the entertainment value and fantasy of becoming wealthy that lottery mathematics cannot account for.