What is the Lottery?


Lottery is a form of gambling that involves paying a small sum of money for the chance to win a larger amount of money. People use the lottery to win a house, car, cash, and even college tuition. Lotteries are a popular activity in many countries around the world. Some state governments even run their own lotteries. Despite the fact that lottery games are addictive, people keep playing them. The reason for this is because of the way in which they are designed. Lottery advertisements, mathematics, and even the look of the tickets themselves are all designed to keep players hooked. In this sense, they are no different from the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.

The modern incarnation of the lottery began in the nineteen sixties, when the growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, it became impossible for states to maintain their array of social safety net services without raising taxes or cutting services. State lottery commissions, naively assuming that the money they would make from their products would be more than enough to cover all state spending, had miscalculated.

They hoped that by making the lottery seem harmless and even noble, they could avoid enraging an antitax electorate. To do this, they stopped arguing that the lottery would float the entire state budget and started claiming it would pay for a specific line item, usually some service that was both popular and nonpartisan, such as education or aid to veterans. This approach also gave legalization advocates a concrete target. Voting against a lottery meant voting against education.

But even this approach has its problems. The main message that lottery marketers are now relying on is that, even if you lose, you should feel good because you’re helping the state, and this is coded into the whole experience of buying a ticket: it’s fun and weird and wacky and makes you feel like you’re part of some sort of weird, nerdy culture.

This argument, in which lottery playing is seen as a meritocratic endeavor, obscures the fact that winning the lottery is still very unlikely, and that the odds of losing are much higher than those of winning any other kind of game. It also obscures the regressive nature of the lottery, because, as Cohen points out, sales of lottery products increase when incomes fall or unemployment and poverty rates rise. And, as with all commercial products, lottery advertising is most heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and black or Latino. This, in turn, reinforces the perception that lottery players are not just bad at math, but are somehow unable to understand how rare their chances of winning actually are. This is a profoundly dangerous message to be broadcast. It’s not only inaccurate, but it also reflects an ugly and unjustified racial bias.