The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize. It’s a popular pastime with a long history, including keno slips found in ancient China and a reference to “the drawing of lots” in the Chinese Book of Songs. The modern lottery is a big business, with millions of people buying tickets every week. It is a source of income for many states and, for some, their main revenue generator. But the lottery is also a symbol of an ugly underbelly: it is a form of gambling that appeals to a sense of desperation. Even for those who know that the odds are long, it can feel like their last hope.

It’s not hard to see why the lottery has become such a powerful force in American life. Its rise began in the nineteen-seventies, coinciding with a sharp decline in financial security for working people. As inflation accelerated, wages stagnated, and health-care costs rose, the old promise that education and hard work would make them better off than their parents was rapidly becoming untrue. The lottery offered a chance to escape this reality.

Whether they buy scratch-off tickets at their local check-cashing joint or pick up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets alongside Snickers bars at a Dollar General, Americans are clearly addicted to the lottery. Whether or not they understand the math behind it, they feel compelled to play. The ads, the looks of the tickets, and the way the numbers are displayed all speak to a psychology that is no different from what tobacco or video-game manufacturers use to keep their products in the hands of consumers.

While state governments promote the lottery as a source of “painless revenue,” it is, in fact, a deeply unequal taxation system that raises money from a small group of voters while imposing an enormous burden on everyone else. As Cohen notes, sales increase as incomes drop and unemployment rises, and the players are disproportionately poor, nonwhite, or male. And because the state is a monopoly, it is able to set its own ticket prices and marketing strategy, which are geared toward keeping players coming back.

Lottery games have never been more lucrative than they are today, but they don’t necessarily offer people any greater opportunity to win. As Cohen points out, the average ticket has only a one in eight chance of winning. Moreover, most of the prizes on offer are not cash; they’re services like free college tuition, subsidized housing units, or kindergarten placements in a good public school.

For anyone who has ever played a lottery, it’s worth taking a close look at the winning numbers to see how they were chosen. A savvy player will chart the outside numbers and count how often each number repeats, noting particularly the singletons—a group of numbers that appear only once on the ticket. A random lottery, with each application receiving its position a similar number of times, will display this pattern.