The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a prize, usually a large sum of cash. The word derives from the Dutch noun lot, which means fate or fortune, and is thought to be a diminutive of the Middle High German word lotte, meaning “action of drawing lots.” The first recorded lotteries appear in town records in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, raising funds for towns’ fortifications or for charity for the poor. In modern times, lotteries are often held to raise public awareness or funds for particular causes.

Lottery profits, after paying out prizes and covering advertising costs, are largely retained by states. This year, for example, the top three lottery players—California, Florida, and Massachusetts—got about $9 billion each.

It’s a regressive revenue stream: While the average person might spend only a few dollars on tickets, the big winners often make tens of thousands or even millions of dollars. In fact, many people have made a career out of winning the lottery.

But there is an ugly underbelly to this phenomenon. Cohen points out that this obsession with unimaginable wealth coincided with the decline in financial security for working people, as income inequality grew and health-care and retirement costs rose. People began to question whether they would ever be able to retire comfortably, buy a house, and raise a family. The lottery offers the promise that, if you just pick the right numbers, all of your problems will disappear. It is a form of covetousness, the biblical sin that God forbids: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, his female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

As long as there are poor and hungry people in the world, there will be a demand for a way to win a fortune. The lottery provides a tempting solution for those who cannot afford to invest their own money, but, in truth, the odds are long that you will become rich by buying a ticket.

In order to keep ticket sales up, state officials have been increasing or decreasing the number of balls in a given game, changing the odds of winning. If the jackpot gets too high, however, it can reduce interest in the lottery and ticket sales will decline. So it is important to find the right balance, which each state must do on its own. It is a complex equation: the larger the prize, the fewer tickets will be sold; the lower the odds, the fewer tickets will be sold; and somewhere in between, there must be a happy medium.