The Power of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which the prize amount depends on the numbers drawn from a pool. The prizes can be cash, goods, services, or other benefits. Some lotteries are legal, while others are not. Some are run by state governments, while others are operated by private companies. Many countries hold lotteries regularly. The first records of lotteries date back to the 15th century in the Low Countries, where they were used to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. Historically, the prize amount has not always been proportional to the number of tickets sold.

The modern lottery started in the United States after World War II, when the postwar prosperity allowed states to expand their social safety nets without raising taxes too much. But that arrangement began to unravel in the nineteen-sixties, with the onset of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. In addition, the American dream of rising from poverty to wealth and prosperity through hard work had ceased to be true for most working people.

In a time when government budgets were tight, lotteries were embraced by states as a way to generate money, which could be matched with federal dollars for programs like education and health care. This meant that the lottery became a big part of most Americans’ lives, even if they didn’t win.

But there was also a more subtle way that the lottery worked to reinforce the idea of luck as the only force that determines success and happiness. Cohen points out that the way state lotteries advertise themselves—by emphasizing the size of the prizes and urging people to purchase tickets in order to help children and others—is akin to how tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers manipulate their customers.

Ultimately, the real power of the lottery lies in its ability to shape our notions of what it means to be lucky. While the vast majority of players have little understanding of the odds and how they work, there is a core group that sees the lottery as a way to finally achieve their dreams. The fact that most of them will never do so is largely irrelevant to those who play, as they will have been conditioned to believe that winning the lottery is an almost guaranteed path to fortune.

It is this group, Cohen argues, that drives so much of the lottery’s popularity. The lottery has given them an escapist fantasy that allows them to put aside their concerns about income inequality, the stagnation of wage growth, and the vanishing promise of upward mobility. For them, the lottery is an opportunity to rewrite their own history. It is an irrational but powerful addiction.