The odds of winning the lottery are incredibly slim—but people still buy tickets. What gives? A lot of factors play into this irrational behavior. Among them: the desire to escape a difficult circumstance, the meritocratic belief that we’re all going to get rich somehow, and the feeling that you can buy the elusive happiness that comes with wealth.
But the most significant factor is that the money that people spend on lottery tickets is not a trivial amount of money. The average American spends $50 to $100 a week on lottery tickets, and those are not people who’ve just started playing; they’re committed gamblers, spending a substantial portion of their incomes. What’s more, there’s a hidden message in the way these lotteries are promoted, and that message obscures how much they really cost.
Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, lotteries played an important role in early America: they helped finance many private and public projects, including churches, colleges, canals, roads, and even the first American military expedition into Canada. In colonial America, the lottery was one of the few ways to raise money without breaking the law or angering the religiously zealous. By the nineteenth century, the lottery became an established part of American life and continued to flourish despite strong protests from Christian groups.
Cohen explains that, in the modern era, growing awareness of all the potential profits from state-run gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As populations grew and the cost of the Vietnam War rose, it became impossible for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Since both options were politically unpalatable, advocates of legalized gambling began to reframe their argument. Instead of touting the lottery’s ability to float a state’s entire budget, they argued that its proceeds would cover a single line item—invariably education, but also elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This approach had the added benefit of dismantling long-standing ethical objections to gambling.
This narrative of how the lottery came to be has been echoed in state-by-state debates, where voters have been told that they’re buying a ticket for a better future, not just a cheap way out of their financial struggles. But the reality is that, if you look at who actually plays the lottery, it’s clear that this narrative is not only misleading but harmful. While some people do play the lottery for fun, a large proportion of players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. In fact, the top 20 to 30 percent of Americans play the lottery on a regular basis, and they spend a lot of money doing so. That money, though, is not being pumped back into the economy: It’s going to the casinos. And that’s not a good thing for anyone.