What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a contest in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. It can be a state-run contest promising big bucks to winners, or any contest in which winners are selected at random. It is often used to raise funds for projects that are too expensive or politically sensitive to be funded through traditional taxation. It may also be used to select students in schools or even to give away real estate. Some people are not good at managing their money and will spend a large percentage of their winnings on items they don’t need or could afford.

Those who argue for lottery reform say that the poor are more likely to play and that they spend a higher percentage of their income on tickets. But they ignore the fact that people’s spending on lottery tickets is a direct response to economic fluctuation. Lottery sales increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates increase. Moreover, lottery advertising is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

The word “lottery” derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or fortune. The earliest European lotteries were simply dinner-party amusements during which each guest received a ticket and prizes would be presented in the form of fancy dinnerware or other goods. The modern state-run lotteries are much more sophisticated, and are usually based on computerized technology that creates random numbers.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when America was in the midst of what Cohen calls “the great tax revolt,” many states introduced the lottery as a way to raise money without raising taxes. Politicians were especially keen on this option because voters in their states had long been known to be averse to taxes. As a result, they viewed lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” the chance for states to make revenue appear out of thin air.

When the economy crashed in the nineteen-eighties, the lottery remained a popular source of revenue. The national clamor for lower taxes and more spending on social welfare programs made the lottery seem like an ideal alternative. Politicians promised that the newfound money from lottery games would be enough to maintain existing services while allowing them to avoid raising sales or income taxes.

But, as Cohen argues, this promise was a mirage. The influx of lottery money was temporary, and the nation soon found itself in a different kind of fiscal crisis. In the nineteen-nineties, income gaps widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the American dream of a secure middle class eroded as well. By the early nineteen-nineties, when lottery sales were booming, Americans had begun to realize that they’d been living beyond their means for years. In the aftermath, many of them began to question the value of hard work and education. And they wondered, too, whether it was possible to win the lottery of life.