The Lottery is More Than Just a Game
For most of us, the lottery is a harmless game where we purchase tickets, have machines randomly spit out numbers, and win prizes if ours match those picked by the machine. But for many people the lottery is more than just a game—it’s a way of life, a ritualized activity that helps them cope with and even escape their daily struggles.
The history of the lottery goes back millennia, and the modern state version emerged in America in the nineteen-sixties. As Cohen writes, advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway—on everything from horse races to heroin—the government might as well collect the profits and use them for public purposes. This argument, he says, gave moral cover to those who would otherwise be uncomfortable with state gambling.
As Cohen explains, once lotteries were established they quickly won broad public approval. In addition, state governments could count on lottery proceeds for a certain kind of “painless” revenue, which allowed them to avoid raising taxes or cutting services. The lottery also developed extensive specific constituencies, such as convenience store owners (who often become local lottery operators); lottery suppliers (whose lobbyists contribute heavily to state political campaigns); teachers (in states in which a portion of lottery revenues is earmarked for education); and legislators.
Despite the widespread popularity of the lottery, it is not a “game for everyone.” It tends to draw disproportionately more players from middle-income neighborhoods than from lower-income ones. And among those who play, there are a significant number of committed gamblers—many of them poor—who do not take it lightly and spend a substantial percentage of their income on tickets.