A lottery is a gambling arrangement in which someone wins a prize by randomly selecting numbers. It’s a commonplace activity in many societies and a staple of state governments’ budgets. The American public spent upward of $100 billion on lotteries in 2021, making it the most popular form of gambling. But how much does it cost, and is it worth the trade-offs that come with it?
In “Lottery: A History of Chance,” Cohen traces the evolution of this popular pastime, from its early incarnations to its modern manifestations. He explains that the modern lottery came about when America’s fascination with unimaginable wealth collided with a fiscal crisis in state budgets. In the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in lottery sales coincided with a steep decline in financial security for the nation’s working class. Incomes fell, job security and pensions disappeared, health-care costs rose, and our longstanding national promise that hard work and education would make children better off than their parents ceased to be true.
Governments needed a way to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were highly unpopular with voters. Enter the lottery, which was seen as a sort of budgetary miracle: It could raise enough revenue to maintain the status quo without the political pitfalls of a tax increase or service cuts. And so, in a move that echoes the way we buy everything from cereal to cell phones, states started selling tickets for a chance to win big bucks.
The odds of winning a lottery jackpot are incredibly low. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. In fact, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning than win the Powerball lottery, which currently has odds of one in thirty-six million. But don’t be fooled by the odds; there are ways to beat the lottery. A Romanian-Australian economist named Stefan Mandel has developed a six-step process that has allowed him to win the lottery 14 times.
But even when the chances of winning are so minuscule, there’s still a strong psychological lure to playing. Lottery spending tends to spike as economic conditions deteriorate, Cohen notes; it rises in recessions and when unemployment and poverty rates climb, and is promoted most heavily in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or Black. And so, even though many lottery players admit to being aware that they’re unlikely to win, they keep buying tickets. And Cohen argues that it’s hard to blame them.