The Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is one of the most popular pastimes in America, raising billions each year and inspiring some people to believe it’s their ticket to a better life. But what are the odds of winning? And what does playing the lottery really cost?

In a sweeping book, Cohen argues that the modern lottery is the result of a clash between two powerful forces. One was the desire of state governments to expand their social safety nets without imposing especially burdensome taxes on working people. This situation, he says, intensified in the nineteen-sixties as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War pushed states’ budgets to their limits.

Lotteries offered a solution: governments could raise money by selling tickets to a random drawing that would yield large cash prizes. Cohen explains that while the lottery industry was initially opposed by religious leaders and other traditionalists, it quickly became popular among middle-class and lower-income voters. By the nineteen-eighties, almost all states had them.

The success of the lottery rested on the state’s ability to convince people that its proceeds were being used for a public good, such as education. This is a common argument, but studies have shown that the popularity of the lottery does not depend on the state’s actual fiscal circumstances. Its popularity seems to stem from the fact that it offers a quick, relatively low-risk way to win a significant amount of money. In addition, the business of the lottery is geared toward maximizing revenues, so advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend money on the game.