The lottery is a game where people pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a large sum of money. Whether it’s to finance a dream vacation or build up an emergency fund, Americans spend about $80 billion on the lottery each year. But winning is a far from sure thing, and some people who win can quickly find themselves worse off than before they won.
In the immediate post-World War II period, Cohen argues, lotteries offered states a way to expand their social safety nets without burdening the middle class and working class with onerous taxes. But that arrangement began to crumble in the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War put a squeeze on state coffers. The solution was to raise taxes or cut services, both of which were unpopular with voters.
Rather than address this issue head on, lottery commissions now rely on two messages. The first is to promote the idea that playing the lottery is a good civic duty, a sort of public service. This obscures the regressivity of the lottery and encourages people to play more than they would otherwise. The other is to promote the idea that winning the lottery is a way to improve your life. This message ignores the fact that people who win the lottery tend to find their lives no better than before, and it obscures the fact that winning the lottery is a form of gambling.