How the Lottery Works

The casting of lots to determine fates and distribute property has a long history in human societies. It has been used for centuries to settle disputes, determine inheritances and even to give away slaves. It has also been used to raise money for government projects and help the poor. In fact, lotteries have become so popular that they are now a major source of revenue for many states.

But state officials don’t always have a clear picture of what is going on in their lotteries. Public policy is made piecemeal, and in the case of lotteries, often by commissions or committees that are independent from and often insulated from the legislative branch. This allows for a kind of policy drift where the interests of the general public are taken into consideration only intermittently, if at all.

Cohen focuses on the modern incarnation of lottery, which started in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with a rising population, inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War, it became impossible for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. And, as he points out, both of those options are deeply unpopular with voters.

So, in response to the crisis of state finance, a number of states started lotteries to raise money for various needs. The basic pattern has been similar in every case: the state passes a law giving itself a monopoly; establishes an independent agency or public corporation to run the lottery (instead of licensing a private firm for a fee); starts with a modest number of relatively simple games and, under constant pressure for additional revenues, gradually expands the portfolio of offerings.

A major problem is that people aren’t clear-eyed about how the odds work in lottery games. For example, many people have quote-unquote “systems” that are not borne out by statistical reasoning — they pick the numbers they think will be lucky, or shop at certain times of day or buy tickets from specific stores.

And, of course, the lottery is an addictive game for many people. The chances of winning are very small, and yet millions of people play it. The reason is that people are willing to pay for a chance at a better life. In a time when most people are struggling to make ends meet, the prospect of a large windfall can be very tempting. And, for a lot of people, the lottery is their only way to try and break the vicious cycle of debt and poverty. That’s a pretty twisted logic, but it has produced an effective tool for raising cash for governments. And, despite the ethical issues raised by such games, they are here to stay.