A lottery is a form of gambling that involves picking numbers or symbols that correspond to various prizes. In the United States, many state governments run lotteries to raise money for a variety of projects, from public schools to highways to elder care. Lotteries are popular among all age groups, but especially those with low incomes. They are often portrayed as harmless, but they are actually dangerous because of the way they can influence people’s decisions. Ultimately, they promote a society that values wealth over human lives.
The lottery is a ritual that has a long history in human culture. The practice dates back at least to the Roman Empire, and is attested in the Bible, where the casting of lots is used for everything from determining who gets a field to whom Jesus should let keep his garments after the Crucifixion. It was a popular pastime for kings, and was used to finance the building of the British Museum and the repair of Roman bridges. Lotteries were also common in the early American colonies, where they were used to pay for public works and fund colleges.
In the modern era, lottery supporters started to gin up new strategies for marketing the game. Instead of arguing that the lottery would float an entire state budget, they began to claim that it could cover one line item, invariably a government service that was both popular and nonpartisan—usually education, but occasionally elderly care or public parks or aid for veterans. This narrower argument made it easier for state legislatures to pass laws legalizing lotteries, because it meant that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling but for a legitimate service.
Lottery advertising is notoriously deceptive, commonly presenting misleading information about the odds of winning and inflating the value of jackpot prizes (which are paid out in equal annual installments over twenty years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value). It’s no coincidence that this obsession with unimaginable riches arose in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes; it coincided with a sharp decline in economic security for many Americans. As housing prices rose, wages fell, job security and pensions eroded, and health-care costs climbed, America’s old promise—that hard work and education would ensure that children would be better off than their parents—became hollow.
While the notion of distributing land and other property via lot is ancient, the modern lottery has only been in existence for about two hundred years. Its rise occurred when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-sixties, a swelling population combined with rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War made it difficult for states to maintain their array of social safety net services without raising taxes or cutting services. Lottery commissioners responded by promoting the notion that winning the lottery was fun, and making the experience of buying a ticket a special kind of pleasure.