The Power of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it altogether, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. It’s not uncommon to see a fifty-dollar scratch-off ticket in the check-cashing aisle of a convenience store or to pick up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets while buying Snickers bars at a Dollar General. While the ubiquity of lotteries might suggest that people are indifferent to them, this is not necessarily true. Rather, lotteries are a powerful force that influences our actions and decisions. In fact, they are so influential that they may be more harmful than even the most violent crime or natural disaster.

The roots of the lottery go back to ancient times, as evidenced by biblical stories like that of Lot’s wife and the Old Testament commandment to divide land by lot. They also appeared during the Roman Empire, where lotteries were often used as an amusement at dinner parties during Saturnalian festivities, where guests were given tickets to enter a drawing for prizes that could include food and drink items, furniture, or slaves.

During the seventeenth century, lotteries became more common in Europe, where they were commonly used to raise money for municipal needs and other public uses. In fact, Alexander Hamilton argued that lotteries were “the only painless method of collecting taxes.”

In his book, The Lottery and the American Dream, historian Adam Cohen describes how the modern lottery emerged as a result of states facing funding crises in the nineteen-sixties. Many states had generous social safety nets, but with a growing population and rising inflation, it became difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—which would be very unpopular with voters. So politicians turned to the lottery, which they marketed as a way to bring in large sums of money seemingly out of thin air.

Lotteries rely on two messages in their advertising campaigns, says Cohen. One is that they offer a chance to win great wealth, which is appealing in an age of inequality and limited upward mobility. The other is that playing the lottery is fun, which appeals to the inextricable human urge to gamble. In order to make the latter message more palatable, lotteries also promote themselves by using billboards that resemble video games and by offering “ask the computer” options on playslips, in which you can mark a box or section indicating that you want the computer to randomly pick your numbers for you. This option obscures the regressivity of lottery play by making it seem more akin to a game than to real gambling. Nevertheless, the odds of winning the lottery are still quite low. This is why so many people keep playing. The bottom line is that, despite its promises of instant riches, the lottery is inherently addictive and destructive. The only way to win big is to work hard and be patient, as the biblical text cautions: “For the lazy person shall not eat, but for the diligent person his reward will be great.” (Proverbs 24:24) And that’s exactly what the Lottery wants you to think.