The Truth About Winning the Lottery

The lottery is a game of chance that involves a prize, an opportunity to win, and a consideration (such as buying a ticket) to enter. It’s an ancient pastime with roots in Old Testament scripture, Roman emperors giving away property and slaves, and nineteenth century America where Benjamin Franklin used lotteries to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. And while it might seem like a fanciful and unproven way to become famous, the truth is that people make lots of money at the lottery, whether they’re rich or poor.

The word lottery derives from Middle Dutch loterie, or “action of drawing lots.” The first lottery games were recorded in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century to raise funds for town fortifications and to aid the poor. These early lotteries were not state-sponsored, but largely organized by private individuals, and advertisements for them appear in the town records of Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges as early as 1445.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lottery games became increasingly popular in Europe and the United States as people sought ways to avoid paying taxes. Despite Protestant religious objections, lotteries were widely used to raise funds for churches and universities, including Harvard and Yale, the latter of which traces its origins to a lottery sponsored by Ben Franklin. The American Revolution and the wars with England and France strained state budgets, and lawmakers sought to find alternatives to raising taxes or cutting public services.

When people win the lottery, they usually dream about what they will do with their winnings. Some will go on spending sprees, buying fancy cars and vacations with their new wealth, while others will put the cash into a number of savings and investment accounts to earn interest. One couple in Michigan, for example, made $27 million over nine years by systematically buying tickets, thousands at a time. They even figured out how to play the Pick Three lottery identically, just with four numbers instead of three.

As the lottery’s popularity grew in the twentieth century, it became a source of intense criticism. Opponents pointed to its potential for corruption, its reliance on deception, and its regressive impact on lower-income groups. But as states embraced the lottery, they began to argue that it could be regulated and promoted in ways that would not damage society.

Cohen argues that state lotteries’ success largely depends on the degree to which they are perceived as a means of promoting a specific public good—most often education. When this argument is successful, it can overpower any concerns about the cost and morality of gambling. The result is that, as Cohen demonstrates, the lottery remains a powerful force in our culture. But is it really a good thing?