The Truth About the Lottery


The word lottery has many meanings, from the casting of lots to determine the fate of the ancient Israel and Roman empire’s slaves to picking a king at an elaborate Saturnalia festival or the chance to keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. But the modern financial lottery is a particular beast: a gambling machine that dishes out prizes to paying participants. Lottery tickets cost money, a percentage of the pool goes to organizing and promoting the contest, and the remaining prize money is distributed among winners. In a typical drawing, the top prize may be a few million dollars. But other prizes range from a new car to an apartment in a subsidized housing complex.

The defenders of the lottery argue that it allows states to expand their social safety nets without burdening the middle and working classes with higher taxes. Cohen, however, argues that such claims obscure the fact that lotteries are highly responsive to economic fluctuations: as incomes decline and unemployment rates rise, lottery sales rise accordingly, especially in poor neighborhoods that are more exposed to promotional marketing.

Lottery evangelists also insist that players simply enjoy the game, but such an explanation overlooks the fact that the vast majority of lottery players are not just recreational gamblers. Many have what they describe as “quote-unquote systems,” based on statistical reasoning that isn’t borne out by reality, about which numbers to choose and which stores and times of day are best for buying tickets.