Lottery is a popular way to make a quick buck, but it also seems to be one of the most addictive ways for people to waste their money. The whole experience—from sifting through a slew of numbers to scratching off a ticket to find out whether or not you’ve won the big prize—is carefully designed to keep people coming back for more. It’s not all that different from how tobacco companies and video-game makers design their products to addict consumers.
During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as the economy boomed and wages stagnated, lottery sales took off in state after state. The reason, as Cohen explains in his recent book on the history of gambling, is that states were desperately seeking solutions to their fiscal crises that wouldn’t enrage anti-tax voters. Lotteries seemed like the perfect answer: They would bring in billions of dollars a year, and even if they didn’t entirely cover a state’s budget, they would allow politicians to tout their lottery programs as “budgetary miracles,” generating revenue that appeared to magically appear out of thin air.
The history of the lottery is a long and complicated one, but there are certain things that we know for sure. The first is that it is a game of chance; no matter how hard you work or how good your luck is, there is always a very real possibility that you will lose. But there are other factors that contribute to the odds of winning, and some of them have nothing to do with luck at all.
Lotteries have a long history in Europe, and were especially common during the Roman Empire. In some cases, they were used as party games during the Saturnalia, with tickets distributed to guests at dinner parties; prizes would typically be fancy goods (dinnerware, for example). More often, though, they were organized to raise funds for a variety of civic projects.
Cohen traces the history of lotteries in America to the early colonial period, when many states, still under Protestant auspices, were reluctant to institute sales or income taxes. Lotteries gave politicians a way to maintain government services without rousing the anti-tax ire of their constituents. To sell legalization, advocates tended to emphasize that the proceeds from the lottery would fund a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan—education, for example, or public parks or veterans’ benefits.
Today, a majority of state-sponsored lotteries are based on this strategy. They advertise that playing the lottery is fun, and they use cute images to obscure its regressivity—and the fact that it’s an extremely expensive form of gambling. They also send a message that you should only gamble if you have a roof over your head and food in your belly. But that’s a pretty dangerous message for someone who has already spent most of their life trying to win. There are plenty of examples of past winners who serve as cautionary tales about the psychological toll that sudden wealth can take on a person, and it’s important for lottery players to be aware of this risk.