A Guide to the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which a pool of money is set aside for prizes, with the odds of winning a prize varying by the number and type of tickets sold. The prizes are normally cash, though they may be goods and services. The participants pay for a ticket, which is normally cheap, and then match groups of numbers, either by choosing them on paper or having machines randomly spit them out. Those who match the most numbers win the prize, which is often very large. Lotteries are a major industry and contribute billions of dollars annually to the economy. While some people play for fun, others believe that they are a route to wealth and security.

Unlike other forms of gambling, which are legalized at the state level, the lottery is run by a central government agency or a public corporation and operates as a sovereign enterprise. Generally, a lottery has a specific goal in mind, such as raising money for education or infrastructure projects. It is then promoted to the public and sold in a variety of ways, including in retail stores and on television. A percentage of the total pool is deducted for organizing costs and profits, and the rest goes to winners.

Lotteries have long held a certain fascination for Americans, and Cohen’s book is an attempt to understand why this is the case. As he shows, the popularity of the lottery coincides with a decline in financial security for most working people. From the nineteen-seventies onward, income disparities widened, pensions and job security eroded, health-care costs rose, and the traditional American dream that hard work and personal responsibility would make children better off than their parents ceased to be true for many families. The lottery, with its promises of unimaginable wealth, provides a tempting alternative to the disintegrating safety net.

The history of lotteries is a fascinating one, and Cohen does a good job in describing the way that modern state-run lotteries evolved in this country. In most cases, states legislated a state-run monopoly; established an independent commission to oversee the operation; began with a small selection of relatively simple games; and then, under constant pressure for additional revenue, grew in size and complexity.

In the beginning, states hoped that lotteries would help them dodge taxes. In the late-twentieth century, when a tax revolt was underway (California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 and other state ballot measures cutting property taxes by sixty-four per cent), legislators saw lotteries as “budget miracles,” the chance to generate funds for existing programs without raising taxes.

The truth, however, is that state lotteries have become a form of gambling with all the attendant risks. The messages that lotteries dangle in front of us, from the slogans on billboards to the mathematics behind their designs, are designed to keep people playing by hook or by crook. And they work, even when the vast majority of players know that they will never win.