The Culture of the Lottery

In the United States, people spend billions each year on lottery tickets. While it is not a good idea to gamble money you can’t afford to lose, for many people, the lottery is part of their lifestyle and they have high hopes that they will win big one day. Nevertheless, the odds of winning are very low. Instead of buying a ticket, you should use the money to build an emergency fund or pay off credit card debt. This way, you’ll be able to save more money in the long run.

The Lottery

When you look at the lottery in a cultural context that gave birth to Instagram and the Kardashians, it may seem absurd that people still spend so much time and money on a slim chance of becoming famous or rich overnight. But the lottery has always been deeply embedded in our culture, and the roots of this obsession with lightning-strike fame and fortune go back a very long way. In fact, the lottery grew up alongside the nation’s broader obsession with unimaginable wealth, which, starting in the nineteen-seventies and accelerating through the nineteen-eighties, coincided with an era when the income gap between rich and poor widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and our long-standing national promise that hard work and education would make you better off than your parents became less true for most Americans.

The first state-run lottery was launched in New Hampshire in 1964, and since then, 44 states have adopted it. The six that don’t, including Alabama, Utah, Mississippi, Alaska, and Nevada—home to Las Vegas—adopt a different approach by not allowing gambling. There are several reasons for this: Alabama and Utah’s absence stems from religious concerns; Alaska is already the top producer of oil, making it reluctant to divert resources to gambling; Mississippi and Nevada allow gambling and thus do not want to compete with them; and Alaska, like California, gets a huge chunk of its budget from taxes on property—which could get cut by a competing gambling entity.

Despite early American Protestants’ proscription against gambling, lotteries were a common way of raising money for everything from church buildings to the Continental Congress’s revolutionary war effort. In the nineteenth century, they were a source of capital for companies, banks, and even enslaved workers. Denmark Vesey, for instance, purchased his freedom through a lottery prize and went on to foment a slave rebellion.