The Truth About the Lottery

Lottery is a game of chance in which people pay money for tickets that have numbers on them and win prizes if those numbers are drawn by chance. The roots of lotteries are ancient; Moses was told to divide Israel’s land by lottery, and the Romans used them for everything from giving away property and slaves to divining God’s will. In colonial America, lotteries were a popular and widely used source of private and public capital, financing the foundation of universities (including Princeton and Columbia) as well as roads, canals, bridges, churches, and other civic projects. They were also tangled up with slavery, as in the case of Denmark Vesey, who won a prize in a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

In the modern era, however, advocates of legalizing state lotteries came up with new arguments to justify their support. They no longer argued that a lottery would float all of a state’s budget; they instead focused on one line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks. This approach, writes Cohen, gave lottery supporters “moral cover,” because it made clear that voting for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but for a service that all Americans needed or wanted.

The problem with this approach is that it obscures the fact that the lottery is a form of gambling, and that there’s a real possibility that someone could find themselves worse off after winning the lottery. The odds are long—statistically, there’s a higher probability that you’ll be struck by lightning or become a billionaire than there is of winning the lottery—and those who play it regularly spend a large share of their income on tickets.