A lottery is a form of gambling wherein people pay a small amount to have their numbers drawn, or machines randomly spit out numbers, and then win prizes if enough of their number combinations match the winning ones. It is the most popular of the various forms of legalized gambling in America. Typically, the prize pool consists of a single large prize or several smaller prizes that are predetermined, after expenses and profit for the lottery promoter are deducted from the ticket sales.
Lotteries have a long history in America and across the world. They helped finance the European settlement of America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. They are still popular in many places, and the United States alone has more state-run lotteries than any other country.
Throughout history, the lottery has been an important source of “painless revenue,” a way for states to get tax money from voters without raising taxes or cutting services. The idea is that people voluntarily spend their own money on tickets to support the public good. This narrative of the lottery is at the heart of the debate about its future.
However, Cohen makes clear that this story is misleading and flawed. A deeper truth is that the lottery has become increasingly a form of social control, and the way it functions is at odds with the public interest.
For example, in recent years, state-run lotteries have shifted from a messaging that encourages people to play because they are fun and social to one that emphasizes the opportunity to make big money, or even “change your life.” This message is coded for low-income Americans, who are encouraged to buy more tickets to increase their chances of winning. The result is that compulsive gamblers, problem gambling, and other social problems are more likely to occur.
Furthermore, when people buy more tickets to the lottery, they tend to spend less on other things. This can mean, for example, buying fewer healthy meals or paying down credit card debt. In the end, this has a negative effect on families and communities, as it reduces household incomes.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the lottery is fair or even a good alternative to more direct forms of spending on public goods. A recent study found that when the lottery was compared to other ways of spending on public goods, it increased inequality among households. A more equitable alternative would be to allocate government spending directly through programs such as subsidized housing or kindergarten placements. Instead, the current system relies on the lottery for a significant portion of state revenues, and this undermines a crucial principle of American democracy. This is why Cohen’s book is so timely. It is a must read for anyone who cares about the future of America.