How the Lottery Is Changing America

The lottery, a form of gambling in which participants select groups of numbers and win prizes when those numbers are randomly drawn, has long been an American pastime. But now it is a global phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar industry, with the winners often hailing from the rich, well-educated classes. And as the game grows, the people who play it are changing America. They are reshaping the way people live, work, and think about wealth, as they reimagine what it means to be middle class or upwardly mobile.

The premise is simple enough: players pay a small sum to participate in a process that combines chance with skill and knowledge to determine the winner. But the reality is more complicated, and the repercussions are wide-ranging.

For many people, the lottery is an escape from everyday problems. It’s an opportunity to imagine that they will one day win big and buy a new car, a vacation home, or even close their debts. And though many experts agree that winning the lottery is not an ideal way to improve your life, there are plenty of people who find it a way to relieve stress and boost their happiness.

While there is an inextricable human impulse to gamble, there’s also a lot going on behind the scenes that lottery marketers know all too well. They’re dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility, and they’re tapping into people’s fears of not having enough.

In his book, Cohen explains that the modern lottery began in the late nineteenth century when awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With an ever-increasing population and soaring inflation, the cost of running a government and paying for a social safety net became unsustainable without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were highly unpopular with voters.

The solution, advocates argued, was to create state-run lotteries. And while there were valid concerns about morality and the ability of government to make such decisions without the input of citizens, those who pushed for legalization found an argument more persuasive: Since people are going to gamble anyway, why not let them gamble with public money and give the state a cut of the profits?

In this era of political polarization, it’s worth remembering that both sides have their arguments. While the wealthy do spend a higher percentage of their income on tickets than those in the lower classes, they do buy fewer of them. According to the consumer financial company Bankrate, people making more than fifty thousand dollars per year spend about one percent of their income on lottery tickets, while those making less than thirty-thousand spend thirteen percent. In other words, the poor are more likely to be playing the lottery, but they’re not winning. And the reason why may be as obvious as it is troubling.