What is the Lottery?


Lottery is a game in which people pay money for the chance to win something of value. In the modern world, it has become one of the most popular forms of gambling, with Americans spending an estimated $80 billion a year on Powerball tickets alone. The odds of winning a prize are very small, but lottery players can feel a sense of hope, and that hope gives the game its appeal.

People have been playing lotteries for centuries. They began as simple games for dinner parties, where each guest received a ticket and the prizes could be fancy dishes or other items of unequal value. Later, the Romans used lotteries to raise funds for city repairs, and Alexander Hamilton grasped what would become the essence of lottery: that “everybody will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the prospect of considerable gain.”

America has long had a love-hate relationship with taxation, which has made it especially eager to embrace gambling as an alternative source of state revenue. Cohen shows how the era of state-sanctioned gambling came about when the rising popularity of lottery play collided with a crisis in public funding. With population growth, inflation, and war expenses weighing on budgets, many states found themselves struggling to balance the books without raising taxes or cutting services.

As lottery sales soared in the nineteen-sixties, more and more voters came to see it as the only practical way for their state to meet its obligations without going broke. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections, these new advocates argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. It was a shrewd strategy that proved highly effective, but it also created the seeds of lottery’s future decline.

Today, lotteries remain popular, but they have lost their moral luster. The money they raise is often used for things that voters don’t want to pay for, and their players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. And while there are no ethical reasons to prohibit state-sanctioned gambling, it is hard to imagine the lottery remaining as a popular fundraising tool in a country where racial justice is so badly needed.

In the end, though, the real reason people buy lottery tickets isn’t to break even or win big. Rather, it’s because they are chasing that elusive feeling of hope—that improbable glimmer that someone somewhere will finally turn their lives around. It’s an ugly underbelly of the lottery, but it’s a reality that millions of Americans can’t deny. This is a fascinating and important book that will open many eyes to the true nature of this popular form of gambling.