The Truth About the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which players buy tickets and hope that their numbers will be drawn. The prize money is often a cash amount or a goods or services. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. The idea was to raise funds for town fortifications, and also to help the poor. It was a hugely successful enterprise.

The lottery became especially popular in the eighties and nineties, coinciding with a decline in economic security for most working people. As income gaps widened, job security eroded, health-care costs climbed, and pensions were cut back, the long-held national promise that hard work would yield an ever-increasing standard of living ceased to be true for most Americans. Against this backdrop, the fantasy of striking it rich became even more enticing.

For many politicians facing budget crises in these years, lotteries offered the appearance of a miracle solution. As Cohen explains, they allowed states to raise large amounts of revenue without raising sales or income taxes, which might provoke outrage at the polls. Lotteries allowed state governments to pretend they were generating hundreds of millions of dollars out of nowhere.

What lottery critics miss, however, is that the irrational and mathematically impossible hope that they might win a big jackpot provides a great deal of value to those who play. They gain a couple of minutes, a couple of hours, a couple of days in which to dream, to imagine that they might be the one. It is a form of mental escape, and for people who feel that their lives have not turned out as they expected, it can be an indispensable balm.

There are other reasons that lottery players continue to spend a huge amount of their time and energy on what they know is an unwinnable game. For example, they may believe that the ticket is an inexpensive way to pass a few hours in the company of friends. Or they may want to get rid of their debt or build an emergency fund. It is estimated that Americans spend $80 billion a year on lotteries, and most of this money ends up going to the very few who win.

Lottery defenders argue that the money that people spend on lotteries would otherwise be spent on other things. But this argument is flawed. It ignores the fact that these other things, including shopping, dining out, and entertainment, are also paid for by lottery proceeds. It is also difficult to understand how lottery spending can be justified when people are struggling to pay for the basics of life and to cover their credit-card bills. It is time for the country to move beyond the lottery. In its place, we need a policy that gives families real choices about how to spend their money. And we need to recognize that winning the lottery is a game of chance that only the very fortunate can hope to win.