Is the Lottery Worth the Risk?

Lottery, that ubiquitous form of gambling in which tickets are bought for a chance at winning big bucks, is a major source of state revenue. But is it worth the trade-off of citizens losing their money? In his new book, Daniel Cohen investigates the lottery’s long history and its complicated role in American society.

In a lot of ways, the modern lottery is a reflection of America’s changing demographics. During the nineteen-sixties, the baby boom and a surge in spending on social programs left states struggling to balance their budgets. For many, the only options were raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were wildly unpopular with voters. That’s when lottery sales began to grow, propelled by the simple fact that people loved to gamble.

The concept of drawing numbers and prizes for a given task dates back centuries, with Moses instructed to take a census of the Israelites and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors using lotteries as a way to give away slaves and property. In Europe, the first state-run lotteries emerged in the seventeenth century, helping finance England’s settlement of America and spreading to the colonies, where they were hailed as a painless way of collecting taxes.

As a result of their enormous popularity, governments started to use lotteries to do all sorts of things: from distributing subsidized housing units to kindergarten placements, to awarding combat duty positions. It’s hard to blame them. After all, it’s in our nature to want to win—even if the odds are long.

This inexorable human drive is one of the driving forces behind the massive success of lottery advertising, and why the big winners are always shown on billboards in a state near you. But there’s also a more sinister side to it: that lottery advertising is dangling the promise of instant wealth in a time when people are increasingly afraid to leave their jobs or neighborhoods, and where social mobility is low.

Cohen’s book takes a close look at what makes people play the lottery, from the inexorable draw of the odds to the way that lottery ads devalue education. He also reveals a special class of player, the “Educated Fool,” who distills the multifaceted prize-probability matrix of a lottery ticket into one number, mistakenly thinking that it’s a sound investment.

Though he nods to the lottery’s earlier history, Cohen focuses on its modern incarnation, which he argues is the most profitable form of gambling ever invented. By examining the underlying psychology of the game and its impact on people’s financial decision-making, his book offers a rich account of how lottery marketing has changed American culture. It’s a fascinating and important read.

Posted in: Gambling