The Growing Popularity of the Lottery


Lotteries are a popular form of gambling where players pay a small amount of money to choose numbers or symbols on a ticket that are then drawn by machines. They can win a prize, often a large sum of money, for matching all or most of the winning combinations. The basic elements of a lottery include a mechanism for recording the identities and amounts staked by bettors, the selection of winners, and the distribution of prizes. In addition, many lotteries offer a number of other services such as sales promotions and ticket processing.

Cohen’s narrative begins in the nineteen-seventies, when America’s obsession with unimaginable wealth, including the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot, coincided with a decline in financial security for most working people. The income gap widened, job security and pensions declined, and health-care costs rose, making it hard for state budgets to balance without raising taxes or cutting public services, options that were extremely unpopular with voters.

The result, according to Cohen, was a rise in demand for the lottery. But, unlike earlier versions of the game that were tangled up with slavery and the slave trade, state-run lotteries were seen as a legitimate alternative to other forms of gambling. Moreover, the fact that the profits were going to a public service was “morally acceptable” to white voters who viewed state-run lotteries as a way of paying for services they otherwise would not support through taxes (such as education).

As the jackpots got bigger and bigger and the odds of winning decreased, the games became more popular. Trying to maximize jackpot size and public interest, lottery commissioners lifted prize caps and made it harder to win, ensuring that the top prize would roll over and grow even bigger. This strategy worked, and it helped lottery profits soar.

Increasingly, as the games became more popular, proponents of legalization began to change their tactics. Instead of arguing that a state-run lottery could float the entire budget, they began to focus on a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan such as education or veterans’ benefits. This narrower approach made it easier for proponents to campaign for their cause.

In the early modern period, many Europeans played lottery games as a pastime or as a form of entertainment at parties, where guests were given tickets and prizes in the form of fancy goods such as dinnerware. Lottery games were also used as a form of divination in some cultures, and the Bible refers to the casting of lots for everything from choosing kings to determining who gets Jesus’s garments after his crucifixion. In the seventeenth century, however, lotteries began to be more widely used to raise funds for public works projects.