A lottery is a form of gambling in which participants buy tickets and winners are selected by random drawing. While some lotteries are purely recreational, others raise money for charitable purposes. Often, a single large prize is offered and smaller prizes are also awarded. Many state and national governments have lotteries, but some countries prohibit them. Some people consider lotteries to be addictive and detrimental, while others see them as harmless and a good way to raise funds for worthy causes.
The origins of the lottery are not clear, but by the fourteenth century, it was common in the Low Countries, where towns held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and charity. The practice migrated to England, where in 1637 Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first nationwide lottery and named its profits for “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets cost ten shillings, a substantial sum in those days. In addition to the prize value, each ticket was a get-out-of-jail-free card—at least for certain crimes, like piracy, murder, and treason.
In colonial America, lotteries were a major source of private and public funding for roads, canals, churches, libraries, schools, and colleges. Columbia and Princeton universities were financed through the academy lotteries of 1740, while the Massachusetts Bay Colony used lotteries to finance its expedition against Canada in May 1758. The lottery also helped fund the fortifications of the colonies and the militia.
By the mid-twentieth century, however, the lottery was no longer the silver bullet that could float state budgets without angering voters. The nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt accelerated; federal money flowing into state coffers declined; and social safety nets began to shrink. State officials, casting about for ways to increase services without enraging the antitax electorate, looked again at lotteries.
The result is that states whose legislatures were preoccupied with protecting the middle class from the economic pressures of inflation and the Vietnam War came to depend on the income from lotteries for much of their revenue. By the early nineteen-seventies, as Cohen explains, that arrangement began to crumble, and in the subsequent decades, lottery revenue fell sharply.
Despite the fact that the odds are one in a million, Americans spend over $80 billion on lottery tickets each year. The money could be better spent building an emergency fund or paying off credit-card debt. But for most people, the thought that the lottery might provide a way out of a financial crisis seems alluring.
Cohen interviews a number of lottery players, whose stories defy expectations about them. Many of these people have been playing the lottery for years, sometimes spending $50 or $100 a week. They know the odds are bad, but they still believe that a sliver of hope that they’ll win will save them. The fact that they’re still buying tickets shows how persistent and irrational this belief is. It’s not that they’re stupid, but that they’re convinced that there’s a reason to keep trying.