The lottery is a game where people pay a dollar or two to be randomly assigned a group of numbers or symbols. They then hope to win a prize, which can be anything from free electricity to a new car. As a popular pastime in the United States, it draws billions of dollars in revenue each year. People play the lottery for fun, but many also believe that winning a large jackpot would improve their lives. This belief, despite the fact that it is unlikely to happen, leads many people to purchase tickets on a regular basis. As a result, they contribute billions of dollars to government receipts that could be spent on education, health care, or retirement savings. This behavior is problematic because it discourages people from focusing on saving for the long term.
In the early American colonies, lotteries provided a vital alternative to taxes for financing public works projects and other needs, from building the British Museum to repairing bridges. In the nineteenth century, they became a source of revenue for churches and colleges. During the late-twentieth century, however, the lottery became a symbol of the national obsession with unimaginable wealth, even though it is very hard to hit a jackpot, Cohen writes. This trend coincided with a decline in the security of working people, as the income gap between rich and poor grew, pensions eroded, and unemployment increased. In addition, rising medical costs and housing prices pushed some families to the brink of homelessness.
Lottery supporters sometimes cast it as a “tax on stupidity,” suggesting that players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or don’t care about it, but this view misses the point. In fact, the lottery is responsive to economic fluctuations: its sales rise as incomes fall and unemployment rates climb, and it tends to be promoted most heavily in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.
The fervor for the lottery, which continues to grow as the average house price tops $300,000 and Social Security payments are cut, reflects a deep and profoundly disturbing reversal in American values and expectations. For most Americans, the promise that hard work and perseverance would lead to a decent middle class has become a thing of the past. Instead, they have been lured by the prospect of instant riches dangled by lottery advertisements and billboards. This is a profoundly disturbing and unhealthy development. We need to change the way we think about the lottery, Cohen argues, or we will continue to live with this underlying cultural conflict between our expectations and reality. Lotteries should be treated like any other form of gambling, she says, and not something we should promote as a way to improve life for ordinary people.