The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery

A lottery is a gambling game where people pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a prize. Its origins can be traced to the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns began to hold public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. In modern times, the word lottery may also be applied to any scheme for distributing prizes by chance, such as military conscription or commercial promotions where property is given away in exchange for a payment.

Cohen’s story centers around the state lottery, which started in the nineteen-sixties as states sought ways to solve budget crises without raising taxes or cutting services (which would enrage an anti-tax electorate). While he nods to early history of lotteries, he focuses chiefly on the modern incarnation, which has grown into a major revenue source for state governments while attracting a large and dedicated constituency including convenience store operators; lottery suppliers (who often make heavy contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (since a good portion of lottery revenues are earmarked for education), and others.

The lottery has become a popular means of raising funds for schools and other public projects because it allows people to contribute a relatively modest sum of money in return for the chance to win a much larger one. But there is a dark underbelly to this exercise that shows how easy it is for humans to justify the sale of false hope to those who can’t afford real ones.