The lottery is a fixture of American life, and for good reason: It’s the country’s most popular form of gambling. It also raises a lot of money for state budgets, making it a useful way to fund things that people would otherwise have to pay for with their taxes (e.g., schools for disadvantaged kids). But does that mean that the lottery is a great thing? That people should just “play to win?”
Cohen traces the development of lottery back to the 15th century, when Burgundy and Flanders towns used them to fortify defenses or help poor citizens. But he focuses chiefly on its modern incarnation, which started in the nineteen-sixties when a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state finance. With inflation rising and the cost of the Vietnam War increasing, it became harder for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.
It was at this point that lottery mania really took hold. While some people play the lottery for pure entertainment value, the majority enter with a belief that they will be rich someday. That’s why the jackpots grow to such ridiculously enormous amounts, and why lottery commercials are so relentless in telling us that we can all be millionaires with just one ticket. This “meritocratic” mindset, coupled with a certain sense of entitlement in the face of economic insecurity, is why winning the lottery feels so incredibly empowering.