How Does the Lottery Work?

A lottery can be many things: kindergarten admission at a reputable school, the process of dishing out housing units in a subsidized apartment complex, the competition to develop a vaccine against a fast-moving virus. In financial circles, however, it’s the name of a game that involves paying to enter a drawing in which prizes are awarded by chance. If winning the lottery sounds like a dream come true, it’s important to understand how the system works.

Cohen explains that the lottery, in its modern form, is really a state-sponsored gambling machine. The government legislates a monopoly; establishes a public agency or company to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in exchange for a cut of profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the scope and complexity of the lottery.

It’s a system that’s not only prone to corruption and fraud, but is also inherently unfair: The more players there are, the higher the chances that any given player will be the one to match all the numbers; and the bigger the jackpot, the more likely it is that someone will find the right combination quickly enough to beat the odds. It’s a game that’s not only stacked against the poor, but can create an addiction that leads to a downward spiral of debt and even financial ruin.

While the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history—Nero was an avid fan; and it’s mentioned numerous times in the Bible—the lottery as a means of raising money for public projects is much more recent. The first recorded lotteries in Europe were held during the Roman Empire, as a kind of party game at dinners or during Saturnalia celebrations. Tickets were distributed to guests, and winners were often given fancy articles of unequal value.

In his book, Cohen argues that the lottery came to prominence in America in the nineteen-sixties, as states desperately sought solutions to budget crises that would not enrage an anti-tax electorate. This period coincided with a decline in the financial security of most working Americans, as inflation and health-care costs rose, and the national promise that hard work and education would enable families to live better than their parents was increasingly unfulfilled. Rather than raise taxes, or cut services, state leaders turned to the lottery to fill their coffers and to keep working people coming back for more.