Lottery is a game where participants pay money to select groups of numbers, or have machines randomly spit them out, and hope to win prizes based on those numbers. Though the term is usually used to describe a state-sponsored game, it can also be applied to private games such as keno and video poker. People play for a variety of reasons, from a desire to acquire wealth to a craving for adventure, or even just to pass the time. In some states, the lottery is a major industry. In others, it is an ancillary one that contributes only modestly to state revenue. In all, though, the lottery attracts millions of players and a wide range of specific constituencies—convenience store operators (lotteries are their bread and butter); suppliers to the industry (hefty contributions to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in those states in which some of the proceeds are earmarked for education); state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the extra money; and, of course, the general public.
In the nineteenth century, lotteries became especially popular in Northeastern and Rust Belt states that had large social safety nets. As the country’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt accelerated, these states found that balancing their budgets was becoming increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, which were both extremely unpopular with voters. Lottery revenues soared. But the odds of winning declined, too, as commissioners raised prize caps and added more numbers to games that had already started with one-in-three-million odds.
Defenders of the lottery argue that people don’t understand how rare it is to win, or they enjoy the game anyway, so why not spend a little to give themselves an occasional chance at something nice? Cohen’s argument is that this view of lotteries is deceptive. The truth is that, as with all commercial products, lottery sales are heavily influenced by economic fluctuations. When incomes fall, unemployment rises, or poverty rates increase, people buy more tickets. They also buy more tickets when they are exposed to advertising, which tends to be most prominent in poor, black, and Latino neighborhoods.
In short, the modern incarnation of the lottery has become, as Cohen argues, “a way for the state to extract money from its citizens without asking them to directly contribute to state coffers.” The etymology of the word, he writes, suggests that its roots are in Middle Dutch loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots,” but it is not clear how these early activities differed from modern lotteries. Certainly they did not produce the same effects as the current ones: the elusive feeling that maybe, just maybe, this time it will be your turn.