Whether they realize it or not, most Americans play the lottery. They buy tickets at gas stations, check-cashing outlets, and supermarkets. They pick up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets alongside their Snickers bars at Dollar General. The lottery is the most common form of gambling in America and contributes billions of dollars to state coffers each year. It’s a massive business, and it’s not one that governments are usually above exploiting: From the look of the ticket to the math behind the numbers, everything about it—and everything that happens as a result—is designed to keep people playing. There’s an inextricable human impulse to gamble, and lotteries capitalize on it. But there’s also something deeper going on here, one that Cohen’s story reveals.
The modern lottery began, Cohen writes, when a growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. During the nineteen-sixties, America’s prosperity waned as populations and inflation rose and as the cost of the Vietnam War mounted. Many states, particularly those that provided generous social safety nets, found it difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were unpopular with voters.
Lotteries were one way to raise revenue that would enable a government to continue providing these services without imposing particularly burdensome taxes on its citizens. But this arrangement was only sustainable as long as the public believed that lotteries were not actually a hidden tax.
Alexander Hamilton argued that “men will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain,” and a lotteries was one way to do so. As a result, he argued, “it cannot reasonably be expected to prevent any class of persons from entering the lottery.”
But the broader public wasn’t so sure. By the nineteen-sixties, there was an increasing sense that lottery money wasn’t really coming in as promised. Many people suspected that the government was squandering it. And that suspicion grew more and more potent as the country sank into a deep recession in the seventies.
In this climate, a small group of entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to make a fortune by selling the promise of quick riches. They turned to ad campaigns that played on the psychologically addictive nature of gambling. They knew that if they could make people believe that they were winning big, they could sell lots of tickets.
In the end, it isn’t so much about odds. It’s about the appeal of the dream that you’re going to get rich in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. Those are the messages that lottery commissions primarily send. And those messages obscure just how regressive and addictive the lottery is. For example, a recent study by consumer financial company Bankrate found that people who earn more than fifty thousand dollars per year spend about one percent of their incomes on lottery tickets; those making less than thirty-thousand do so at a rate of thirteen percent.