What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which people choose numbers in order to win a prize. Lotteries date back to ancient times, when they were used as a form of divination or for giving away property and slaves, or for fun—for example, during Roman Saturnalia feasts, where guests received tickets toward the end of dinner to be drawn for prizes such as expensive goods, paintings, and furniture. Later, the British and American colonies held dozens of state lotteries. These public lotteries were a popular source of funding for projects, including schools and bridges. Privately organized lotteries were also common as commercial promotions in which property was given away and for the sale of products or services.

During the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, a period of economic stagnation and rising inflation, states struggling to fund their social safety net found themselves in a precarious position: they had to either raise taxes or cut services, both options wildly unpopular with voters. Many politicians turned to the lottery as a budgetary miracle, claiming that if they instituted it, it would quickly bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, thereby eliminating the need for any tax increases.

The wealthy do play the lottery, of course—especially when the jackpots reach ten figures. But they buy far fewer tickets than the poor do, and their purchases represent a much smaller percentage of their incomes. As a result, they’re more likely to have the resources to bounce back from a loss.