A Deeper Look at the Lottery
The lottery is a gambling game that raises money by selling chances to win a prize, usually a sum of cash. Its popularity is rooted in an inherent human desire to gamble and dream. Whether it’s scratch-off tickets at check-cashing stores or Powerball and Mega Millions tickets while buying groceries, people spend a lot of money on these hopes of getting rich quick. But a deeper look at the lottery, particularly how it’s advertised and marketed, suggests that state governments aren’t above exploiting people’s addiction to gambling.
In fact, it’s been going on for quite some time. Lotteries first appeared in the ancient world, with the earliest known keno slips dating to the Chinese Han dynasty, between 205 and 187 BC. These were used to draw lots for military posts, taxation, and even property and slaves. They grew even more popular in colonial America, where they played an important role in financing everything from roads and canals to churches and colleges. Lotteries helped finance Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and even the Continental Congress sought to use one to fund the Revolutionary War.
But, as Cohen explains, when the post-World War II prosperity that allowed states to expand their social safety nets began to crumble under the pressure of rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, it became harder for politicians to balance state budgets without hiking taxes or cutting services, both of which would be highly unpopular with voters. Lotteries seemed like “budgetary miracles, a chance for states to make money appear seemingly out of thin air,” Cohen writes.
This was a particularly opportune moment for the lottery to enter its modern incarnation, when the demand for state-sponsored gambling was growing rapidly, and many states were faced with the prospect of either slashing public services or raising taxes. Politicians turned to the lottery, which was less controversial than a raise in sales or income taxes, and it soon grew into a massive industry.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the lottery’s rise, not just as an institution but also as a cultural symbol. Today, it is hard to imagine a society that does not have its own version of the lottery and its marketing. People from all backgrounds and social classes buy lotteries, and the ads they see are designed to appeal to their desire to gamble on a better future. But the reality is that there is no guarantee of winning and you are more likely to lose than gain. The best thing you can do is to play responsibly, and to avoid pitfalls like making impulsive purchases or telling too many people about your win right away. It’s always best to be discreet and keep your luck a secret. The longer you can maintain that privacy, the safer your life will be. And it’s always better to buy your ticket from a reputable company that has an established track record of being fair and responsible.