What is the Lottery?


A competition whose prizes are determined by chance, in which numbered tickets are sold and the winners are those who have numbers drawn at random; sometimes used as a synonym for a state or charitable lottery. The term also applies to other contests whose first stages depend solely on chance, even if later rounds require skill. A bettor writes his or her name and the amount staked on a ticket that is then deposited with the organizers of the lottery for shuffling and selection in the drawing; modern technology has made such arrangements much more sophisticated, however.

The basic idea of the lottery is deceptively simple, and its appeal is enormous. People who play often think of it as a game, and indeed, it can be fun to buy and scratch off tickets; but the odds of winning are absurdly low. This makes for a highly addictive activity, as evidenced by the fact that the richest Americans spend, on average, one percent of their incomes on lotto tickets. By comparison, those who make less than fifty thousand dollars per year spend thirteen percent of their incomes on them.

But a larger issue is that people who play the lottery are, like everyone else, prone to coveting money and the things it can buy. The Bible warns against this, and yet a staggering number of Americans believe that the lottery will solve all their problems. If only they can get a lucky number or two, all their troubles will disappear. The truth is, of course, that the problems will only continue to multiply, and the lottery will only make them more intense and prolonged.

When, in the nineteen sixties, growing awareness about all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding, it became clear that many states would need to either raise taxes or cut services. Both options were unpopular with voters, so officials began casting around for alternatives. One of the options they settled on was a state lottery, which could be marketed as a solution to a single line item in the budget—usually education, but occasionally veterans, elder care, and public parks.

Cohen argues that the lottery has become a powerful symbol of American life because it represents the most extreme form of a dangerous human urge: the desire for wealth and power. It is a kind of greed that takes the form, in the case of the lottery, of a competition where the chances of winning are so absurdly remote that people feel comfortable taking huge risks to try to win a prize they know is a long shot. In the end, he says, lottery advocates have discovered how to package and sell an addictive product without making it seem exploitative or harmful. The result is that, despite its ugly underbelly, the lottery remains as popular as ever. The answer, he concludes, is not to ban it but to make it more fair and transparent.