The Lottery and Its Dangerous Underbelly


Lottery is a form of gambling with incredibly low odds of winning, yet people still buy tickets every week, contributing billions of dollars each year to state coffers. This is partly due to the inextricable human impulse to gamble, but also because of a more sinister underbelly: the lottery offers a sliver of hope that you may win, even though you know deep down that you won’t.

It’s no secret that the lottery draws on the lowest-income Americans to sell its tickets. In fact, a recent report found that lottery players spend, on average, one percent of their income playing the game; those earning less than thirty thousand dollars will spend thirteen percent. This is a far higher percentage than the amount spent by people making more than fifty thousand dollars per year.

Cohen argues that this obsession with unimaginable wealth, and the dream of winning the lottery, began in the nineteen-sixties, when a decline in financial security for working people took hold: income gaps widened; job security eroded; health care costs spiraled; and our long-standing national promise that education and hard work would render children better off than their parents began to fray.

Lotteries were once common, with records from the 15th century indicating that dozens of cities held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. But the modern lottery, with its super-sized jackpots and ad campaigns designed to keep people coming back for more, is nothing like these earlier examples. Instead, it’s a bit more like the tobacco industry or video-game makers: It relies on addictive tactics to manipulate its player base.