A lottery is a gambling game in which tickets are sold and winnings are determined by chance. Some people play lotteries to raise money for a specific cause, while others simply enjoy the chance of winning a prize. The history of the lottery dates back to the 15th century, when town records in the Low Countries mention lotteries to raise funds for walls and town fortifications. Today, many states hold lotteries to raise money for a variety of public charitable causes. The New York Lottery, for example, raises money to help poor children, veterans, and the elderly. The lottery also provides a source of revenue for the state, which must spend the proceeds in accordance with its constitution.
The odds of winning the lottery are incredibly slim. The chance of being struck by lightning is far greater than winning the Mega Millions jackpot, but many people feel as though the lottery is their only way up. People spend enormous sums of money buying tickets, and even if they do win, they may find themselves worse off than before they won.
This lottery obsession isn’t just irrational, but reflects deeper human evil. It has emerged, Cohen argues, in parallel with a decline in financial security for most working people. Starting in the nineteen-seventies and accelerating in the nineteen-eighties, incomes fell, health-care costs rose, job security eroded, and pensions disappeared. For most families, our long-held national promise that education and hard work would ensure they would always be better off than their parents ceased to be true.
For those with very little to begin with, the lottery is a tempting outlet for their desire for wealth. But despite the fact that most of those who play the lottery do not understand how unlikely it is that they will win, they keep playing. In part, this reflects a sense of desperation: as a recent study shows, Americans are spending $80 billion per year on lotteries—that’s enough to build emergency savings for every household in America. Instead, Americans could use this money to pay off debt or save for a down payment on a home.
Advocates of the lottery have attempted to counter ethical objections by arguing that, because people were going to gamble anyway, governments might as well pocket the profits. This argument, of course, has its limits; by that logic, governments should also sell heroin. But it has given moral cover to people who approve of state-run lotteries on other grounds. In particular, they now argue that a lottery would float one line item in a state budget, usually some popular and nonpartisan service, such as education or elder care. This narrower approach makes it much easier to campaign for legalization. And it has made it possible for lotteries to become a major source of state funding, even in eras when many voters are averse to taxation.