The lottery is a popular pastime, but it’s also a form of gambling that can have harmful consequences. People can become addicted to it, and the odds of winning are slim–statistically, there’s a better chance of being struck by lightning than hitting the jackpot. In addition, the costs of buying a ticket can add up over time, and even those who win large amounts of money often find themselves worse off than before.
The modern version of the lottery, Cohen writes, started in 1964, in states like New Hampshire that were famously tax averse and desperate for revenue to fund their generous social safety nets. As the economy sank into the doldrums of the nineteen-sixties, with inflation and war expenses mounting, many state budgets were in crisis. For many, balancing the books would require either raising taxes or cutting services–both options that were extremely unpopular with voters.
To address this crisis, lottery sales began booming. The games were cheap to run, and the oversized jackpots earned them windfall publicity on news sites and broadcasts. But these prize amounts skewed the distribution of wealth in favor of the rich, who could afford to buy lots of tickets.
As the jackpots got bigger and bigger, the percentage of tickets sold to the general public rose as well, despite the fact that the chances of winning were slim. In a country that has a long history of inequality and class warfare, it’s not surprising that the lottery became increasingly unpopular among the working classes, Cohen observes.
In the heyday of state lotteries, there was one clear message from lottery commissions: “Playing the lottery is fun.” Lottery ads emphasized the experience of scratching off a ticket and promised a chance to make millions. As a result, people who played the lottery as a way to make money did not think of it as a serious investment in their financial future. They thought of it as a way to pass the time, and if they won, they’d be able to buy something big.
Nowadays, lottery marketers try to communicate a different message: “The lottery is a game.” They highlight the experience of playing and the jolt you get when you match the numbers. They try to convince players that the lottery is just like a video game or a Snickers bar, which obscures its regressivity.
Lotteries have been around for centuries, as evidenced by the Old Testament and the Roman Empire’s love of them (Nero was a big fan). In early America, lotteries were mostly used to raise money for public works, but they were sometimes tangled up in slave trades. Even George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that awarded prizes including human beings. But in the twentieth century, a lotteries’ popularity grew in lockstep with a decline in working-class prosperity. People had a harder and harder time achieving their old dreams of family vacations, luxury homes, and college tuition for their children. They needed to win the lottery, or at least a piece of it.