The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


A lottery is a popular form of gambling in which participants choose numbers to win prizes. In the United States, most states offer a variety of different lotteries, including daily games and weekly jackpot drawings. In most lotteries, the total value of prizes is determined by a combination of predetermined and variable factors. These include the number of tickets sold, profits for the promoter, and taxes or other revenues. Typically, the total prize pool includes one large prize along with many smaller prizes. In addition, the promoter often offers a percentage of ticket sales to charity.

Americans spent upwards of $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021, making it the most popular form of gambling in America. But just how meaningful that revenue is to broader state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-offs to people who lose money, is debatable.

Lotteries date back centuries, with the Old Testament directing Moses to take a census and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors using it to give away property and slaves. In the American colonies, lotteries financed private ventures such as libraries and churches, and public projects like roads, canals, and colleges. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to raise funds for his militia, and John Hancock used one to help build Faneuil Hall in Boston and George Washington to fund a road over a mountain pass.

The modern era of lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen argues, as growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with an economic crisis for states. Faced with swelling populations, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, states had to balance their budgets by raising taxes or cutting services. Both options were unpopular with voters. Lotteries provided politicians with “budgetary miracles,” Cohen writes, a way to make money appear seemingly out of thin air without raising taxes.

As the lottery became more a part of life in America, a dark underbelly emerged. “Life imitated the lottery,” Cohen writes, as the income gap widened and working-class families struggled to get by, pensions were cut, health care costs rose, and the long-held national promise that hard work and education would ensure a better life for kids than their parents’ had ceased to be true for most Americans.

Nevertheless, Cohen says, the vast majority of players are largely unaware of these issues. They simply want to feel that they’re not wasting their money. The fact that their chances of winning are vanishingly small doesn’t seem to bother them—as does the fact that the odds of hitting the top prize are even worse now than when they first started. The game’s popularity has become a proxy for an underlying anxiety. For many people, winning the lottery is their last, best, or only chance at a new beginning. So they keep buying their tickets, and they have all sorts of quote-unquote systems for picking the right numbers, lucky stores, and times of day to buy them.