The Problems With the Lottery
The casting of lots for wealth, status, and privilege has a long history, with the Old Testament instructing Moses to take a census of Israel’s population and then divide it by lot. Roman emperors used the lottery to give away slaves and property, and the practice made its way to Britain when colonists brought it over from the Low Countries. But despite this rich heritage, there are some fundamental problems with the lottery, and not all of them involve gambling.
The first issue is that the odds do make a difference—to a great extent, the more improbable your chances of winning are, the more you want to play. This is why people develop quote-unquote “systems” that aren’t backed up by any statistical reasoning about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy tickets, and it’s also why a lot of people play multiple lotteries every week.
Another problem is that people tend to believe that the lottery is just one more thing they can do to get ahead. But the truth is that you’re just as likely to win the lottery as you are to be struck by lightning, and winning it won’t give you any advantage at all in the real world.
Cohen’s book takes us back to the era of the state-run lottery, starting in the nineteen sixties when growing awareness about all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. States were having to balance their budgets as the prosperity that had prevailed in the immediate postwar period started to crumble due to a combination of factors including inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and a population that was growing faster than the government could keep up with it.
Suddenly, many states—especially those with larger social safety nets that had been established to help poor and middle class families—had to choose between raising taxes or cutting services. To avoid this unpleasant choice, they decided to try a new source of revenue: the state-run lottery.
This was not a popular idea at the time, with many voters thinking that introducing it would be tantamount to letting the rich rob them of their own hard-earned tax dollars. But the states had to do something, and so they went along with it.
The result was that lottery play spiked, with a large portion of players coming from middle-income neighborhoods and far fewer from low-income areas. This polarization has continued, with the lottery playing a much larger role among men than women, blacks and Hispanics more than whites, and the young and old less than the middle age range. But even when you strip out these demographic differences, the overall effect is still troubling. Americans spend over $80 billion on the lottery each year—money that could be better spent on things like emergency funds and paying off credit card debt.