What is the Lottery?

Lottery is a game of chance in which players attempt to win money by guessing numbers or other symbols. While the casting of lots for decisions and determining fates has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), lotteries allowing the public to gamble on small prizes for money are a much more recent development. Initially, state lotteries developed as an alternative to taxes in America’s early colonies, which were subject to restrictive Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Despite these restrictions, lottery games quickly spread throughout the colonies, and Benjamin Franklin even held a lottery to raise money for cannons for Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.

Lotteries typically begin as simple raffles, whereby the public buys tickets for a drawing at some future date, often weeks or months in the future. But innovations in the 1970s transformed lotteries into “instant” games, whereby the public pays to play a game that produces results immediately, rather than waiting for a draw. Instant games generate far higher revenues than their predecessors, and a steady stream of new games keeps revenue levels high.

The jackpots of modern lottery games are enormous, generating enormous publicity and interest. They also provide a way for state governments to meet budgetary obligations without incurring the ire of voters who oppose new taxes. These super-sized jackpots are both a product and a consequence of the fact that, as Cohen points out, lottery sales tend to fluctuate with economic conditions. Lottery participation increases when incomes decline, unemployment rises, or when the prospect of retirement or job security becomes more remote.

Although critics argue that lottery play promotes a false sense of hope, and that people should not be rewarded for their mistakes, most studies find that lottery participants are not stupid, and that the average player understands how unlikely it is to win. But the popularity of lottery games has not changed the fact that life has changed for most American working families, and that the long-standing promise that hard work and education would enable them to enjoy wealth and security largely ceased to be true in the twentieth century.

In the nineteen seventies and eighties, as incomes stagnated, a growing number of households faced declining or falling wages, increasing health-care costs, rising housing prices, and shrinking pensions and Social Security benefits. In response, they turned to the lottery for the dream of a windfall. The results have been predictable: lottery sales increase as real incomes fall, and, as with all commercial products, they are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. The result has been an obsession with unimaginable wealth, and the fantasy of hitting a multimillion-dollar jackpot. The lottery is now the largest source of gambling in the country. It is no surprise that it is also the most controversial, with critics arguing that it exploits the poor, fosters compulsive behavior, and contributes to inequality. Lottery advocates respond that these criticisms are based on outdated assumptions, and that the lottery is a legitimate source of revenue.

Posted in: Gambling