The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to win prizes. In the United States, most state governments offer lottery games, ranging from instant-win scratch-off tickets to weekly games in which people choose six of fifty-one numbers. The odds of winning a prize are usually very low, but people play for the dream of becoming rich. The casting of lots to determine decisions and fates has a long history, including several instances in the Bible, but lotteries as a way to obtain material wealth are relatively new. The first recorded public lotteries to sell tickets for money were in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, raising funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as American states grew to provide a substantial social safety net and other benefits to their residents, they found that balancing their budgets became increasingly difficult. Many states began to rely on the lottery to raise money without running the risk of angering their tax-averse electorate.
Cohen writes that the growing popularity of state-run lotteries in the late-twentieth century coincided with a decline in economic security for ordinary Americans. Beginning in the nineteen-seventies and accelerating in the nineteen-eighties, income inequality widened, job security and pensions declined, health-care costs rose, and the old national promise that hard work would yield a decent standard of living ceased to be true for most people.
As Cohen points out, defenders of the lottery often invoke morality when promoting it, arguing that, since most people will gamble anyway, government should make the profits available to the needy. That argument has its limits, but it gives a moral veneer to people who support the lottery for other reasons.
For example, in the early American colonies, lottery proceeds helped pay for everything from a battery of guns to the rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston. And, as in the Middle Ages, lotteries were tangled up with the slave trade. George Washington managed a lottery in Virginia that offered human beings as prizes and a formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won a South Carolina lottery and then went on to foment a slave rebellion.
A number of scholars have studied the role of lotteries in society, and Cohen draws on their work. She also interviews lottery players, many of whom spend $50 or $100 a week on tickets. Their conversations surprise her, because they defy the stereotypes about lottery players: they’re not irrational, and they know that their odds of winning are long. They have quotes-unquote “systems”—completely unfounded by statistical reasoning—about lucky numbers, and they go to particular stores at certain times of the day.
The most revealing conversation she interviews involves a husband and wife who made millions playing the Michigan lottery. They bought thousands of tickets at a time, and they knew how to manipulate the system by identifying patterns in the results. They weren’t cheating; they were just taking advantage of the game’s rules.