The Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is a contest in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are given away to the holders of numbers that are drawn at random. A lottery may be conducted as a means of raising money for public purposes, such as for a state or charity. It may also be used to select winners of public services, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements. Regardless of its purpose, the lottery is generally seen as a form of gambling.

During the early modern period, the lottery gained popularity as states looked for ways to balance their budgets without enraging anti-tax voters. The lottery offered states a chance to raise money without imposing direct taxes, and it was an attractive option for those who were unable or unwilling to pay indirect taxation such as sales or income taxes.

In many places, the state established a public corporation to run the lottery. The company began operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, and as pressure mounted to generate additional funds it progressively expanded its offerings. Today, most state lotteries offer a dozen or more different types of games.

While the popularity of the lottery has increased, it remains a controversial practice. Critics argue that it encourages compulsive gambling and has a regressive effect on lower-income groups. Whether or not such arguments are valid, the lottery continues to grow in size and complexity.

As Cohen explains, the lottery’s rise to prominence in America coincided with the decline of economic security for most working Americans. In the nineteen-sixties, wages stagnated, retirement and health-care costs climbed, and the long-held national promise that hard work would allow children to do better than their parents grew ever more elusive.

In response to the decline in social safety nets, many people turned to the lottery as a way to secure their financial futures. The result, as Cohen argues, is that we have entered an era in which the majority of Americans spend nearly half their incomes on lottery tickets.

Some people play the lottery more than once a week (“frequent players”). According to one study, high-school educated middle-aged men who live in suburban areas are more likely to be frequent players than other demographic groups. The lottery’s popularity reflects the growing number of families in which at least one member is working full time. It is a growing trend that will have profound implications for the nation’s financial future.