The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people pay a small sum for the chance to win a large one. It is a form of gambling, but it’s also a popular way for states to raise money for everything from public buildings to school tuition. In America alone, lotteries pull in billions of dollars a year. Many people play the lottery for fun, while others believe that it is their only chance to get rich. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to understand how lotteries work. Here are a few things to know about how they operate and what the odds are of winning.

While the idea of lotteries goes back far in history, they became very common in early America. They helped finance European settlement in the new colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. They also gave the nation its first university. In a sense, the lotteries of the American Revolution were the ancestor of modern education funding, with public lotteries helping to build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary. The Continental Congress even tried to use a public lottery to support the colonial army, relying on Alexander Hamilton’s understanding that most people “would prefer a trifling risk to a small chance of considerable gain.”

The popularity of the lottery has been linked to a number of other issues. Some researchers have found that people who receive scratch-off tickets as gifts in childhood and adolescence are more likely to develop gambling problems later in life. Other studies have found that lottery outlets are often located in neighborhoods with high numbers of minorities, who tend to be at greater risk for gambling problems.

There is an ugly underbelly to the lottery that isn’t immediately obvious. The lottery has created a sense of hopelessness and insecurity. People feel that they are not getting ahead, and they have lost control of their lives to the point where they think a lottery ticket is the only way up. When they see that 7 is coming up more often than any other number, it makes them think, well, maybe I should try my luck.

The modern lottery, Cohen writes, developed in the nineteen-sixties, when state budget crises arose and legislators had to find ways to balance the books without raising taxes or cutting services. At the same time, a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business brought more attention to the industry’s appeal, particularly among the country’s tax-averse electorate. The result, as a New Hampshire lotteries opened and more states followed suit, was the birth of the American lottery industry. It would soon become the largest in the world. Its success has been fueled by the fact that, as Cohen puts it, “a lot of people plain old like to gamble.” In the end, though, it’s more than just that. The lottery offers a promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.