The Fun of Playing the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which people pay money to get a chance to win a prize. The prizes can be cash, goods, services, or even a house or car. In the United States, for example, Americans spend over $80 billion on lotteries each year. The money comes from all over the country, but it is concentrated among a few winners and losers. The odds of winning are very low, but the publicity generated by a jackpot can cause people to spend a lot more than they would otherwise. Despite their low chances of winning, people still play the lottery because it is fun.

The modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when states with generous social safety nets found themselves running out of funds. A combination of soaring inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War made it difficult to keep services up without hiking taxes or cutting programs, which were wildly unpopular with voters. Lotteries, Cohen writes, offered a solution. They could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, allowing governments to avoid the unpleasant subject of taxation.

To determine the winning numbers, a large pool or collection of tickets and their counterfoils is thoroughly mixed by some mechanical means—shaken or tossed, for example—and then the winners are selected at random. Computers have now taken over this role. A common message, pushed by lottery marketers, is that players can feel good about their spending because a portion of the proceeds goes to charity. But this argument obscures the lottery’s regressive nature. It also suggests that lottery spending is a purely personal decision, rather than an economic response to economic fluctuations.