The Dark Underbelly of Lottery

Lottery, at its most basic level, is a game in which participants make a bet on the outcome of a drawing of numbers. Normally the organizers of a lottery take a percentage of the total pool as costs and profits, with the rest awarded to winners. The odds of winning vary, depending on the prize size, frequency of drawings, and how much players pay in entry fees.

Lotteries were a feature of life in colonial America, and were widely used by George Washington to finance projects ranging from paving streets to building wharves. But they also stoked the ambition of working people, who had come to believe that their hard work and thrift would yield them wealth beyond their wildest dreams. By the nineteen-sixties, however, that dream began to recede. Inflation, war expenses, and other demands made balancing state budgets difficult for many states without raising taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters. In this environment, lottery revenues surged.

But there is a dark underbelly to this phenomenon that Cohen, an economic historian, explores in his book. The more improbable the odds of winning became, the more people wanted to play. People bought tickets in bulk and spent large amounts of their disposable income on them, trying to beat the odds. The mania was exemplified by the story of a couple in their 60s who managed to win $27 million over nine years, and eventually found themselves traveling to Massachusetts to play a game where the odds were more favorable.

In this context, lottery games have become a proxy for a lost American promise: the idea that hard work and thrift, combined with a decent social safety net, would yield a comfortable middle class, a good education for all children, and unimaginable wealth. Lottery sales, Cohen argues, have been driven by anxiety about declining financial security.

The history of lottery has been a long one, from biblical times to the modern era. In its early incarnation, lottery games were not just about money but about social status. In colonial America, lotteries helped fund the settlement of England and its American colonies, and despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British. Lotteries were also deeply entwined with slavery, and enslaved Americans, like Denmark Vesey, won a Virginia-based lottery and went on to foment slave rebellions.

In the modern era, lottery advocates stopped arguing that legalizing the game was a silver bullet for a state’s budget problems and instead focused on a single service they believed could benefit all citizens-usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or veterans’ aid. This narrower approach obscures the regressivity of lottery spending and makes it harder to argue against it. But it has not stopped the growth of the lottery business itself, or its popularity with the working classes. The odds, though, keep getting worse. The New York Lottery launched with one-in-three million odds, and they are now one-in-four-hundred-and-fifty-million.