The lottery is a game of chance where people buy tickets for a small sum of money and get a chance to win huge amounts of money, sometimes even billions. It is a form of gambling, but many state and federal governments run it because they believe that people are willing to pay for the chance of winning. However, in reality the odds of winning the lottery are extremely low, and this game can actually be quite addictive for those who play it regularly.
Until recently, most people believed that lotteries were not only harmless but beneficial, and that the money they raised was used for a variety of public purposes. But as a new book, “Lottery: The Ugly Underbelly of the American Dream,” argues, the truth is much different. The author, James B. Cohen, a professor of history at Columbia University, traces the evolution of the modern lottery to the late nineteen sixties, when a growing awareness of all the money in gambling collided with a crisis in state finances. With a rapidly expanding population and spiraling inflation, it became difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services that voters hated.
So states started experimenting with various ways to raise funds, including lotteries, which were very popular. The first recorded lotteries offered tickets with prizes of money, and were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Lotteries helped finance the settlement of England, and later spread to America despite Protestant proscriptions against dice and cards. In early America, they were tangled up with the slave trade in unexpected ways; for example, George Washington managed a lottery whose prize included human beings, and one of the winners was a formerly enslaved man who went on to foment a slave rebellion.
Lotteries are marketed as fun, and they certainly do provide an entertaining experience. But they also have a dark side, and the most dangerous aspect is how much they can be addictive. People who play them often feel a strong desire to become rich, and the fact that the jackpots are so large makes it seem like they have a good chance of doing so. Lotteries promote this message by presenting odds that are often misleading, inflating the value of money won (lottery winnings are usually paid out in installments over twenty years, with taxes and inflation dramatically eroding their current value), and dangling the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.
As a result, the bulk of lottery players and revenue come from middle-income neighborhoods. In contrast, those from lower-income communities spend disproportionately less of their incomes on tickets. This regressivity undermines the claim that the lottery is a fun, harmless game, and it can give rise to the dangerous idea that winning the jackpot might be the only way up for people who are down on their luck. Lottery marketing also obscures the regressivity by making it appear that everyone has a equal chance of winning, when in fact the likelihood of winning is far higher for those with the most resources.