A Cautionary Tale About the Lottery


Lotteries are popular, if controversial, gambling games in which tickets are sold and the winning numbers are drawn at random. They are often portrayed as the most harmless form of gambling, but in reality they are quite different: they encourage addiction and can have devastating effects on people’s lives. A surprisingly large number of people, particularly those living in poverty, spend a significant percentage of their income on lottery tickets. In his new book, the journalist David Cohen examines why that is and how the lottery is marketed to keep players hooked. The result is a cautionary tale about how the state’s lottery system contributes to the economic inequality in America and erodes the sense of moral worth that many Americans feel they deserve.

The history of lotteries dates back to ancient times. The biblical book of Numbers instructs Moses to divide land among Israel by drawing lots, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and property through a similar game called the apophoreta. In the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, town officials used them to finance fortifications, churches, canals, schools, and other public projects. Lotteries also played a major role in the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.

In the nineteenth century, states increasingly turned to them to solve budget crises and expand social services without imposing heavy taxes on the working class. In the late twentieth century, as the economy shifted from manufacturing to service industries and wages stagnated, the lottery’s appeal grew even stronger. It was a way for state governments to fund everything from better schools to highways without upsetting voters.

Those who pushed for legalizing the lottery disregarded long-standing ethical objections, reasoning that if people were going to gamble anyway—in casinos and illegally in private gambling circles—governments might as well collect the proceeds and use them for good. This line of thinking also gave moral cover to white voters who supported the lottery, even though they knew that black numbers players would be the main beneficiaries and might help fuel the racial tensions that arose during that era.

The success of the modern lottery owes to its simple formula: prizes are awarded to a small group of people at a relatively low cost. The prizes are usually cash, but they can include goods, services, and even houses. A small percentage of ticket holders—usually about ten percent—win the big jackpot. Most of the rest win smaller prizes, such as a car or an iPod.

The chances of winning are very low, but the ad campaigns for lotteries emphasize the big wins and promise that playing “just one ticket” could change your life forever. The ads, like those for cigarettes or video games, are designed to exploit the psychology of addiction and to persuade players to keep playing. Those who are most addicted to the game, however, tend to be the people who play for years and spend fifty or hundred dollars each week.