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The Lottery and the American Dream


In this era of declining wages, rising costs of living and diminished social mobility, it is not surprising that people continue to dream about winning the lottery. But while there is a certain inextricable human impulse to gamble, the lottery does far more than that: it is a powerful peddler of false hope, a promise that hard work and education will pay off, and that America still has a meritocratic society.

The earliest lotteries were games of chance in which individuals tried to guess numbers or symbols in an attempt to win money or goods. In the seventeenth century, a game called lotto was introduced that required participants to pick a set number or combination of numbers from a range. The winnings were then determined by drawing lots. The process of picking the winners was usually performed by shaking or tossing the tickets, but computerized drawing systems are now used. The odds of winning the lottery are absurdly low, but this does not stop people from purchasing tickets.

A recent study found that the average person purchases about seven lottery tickets per year. Across the country, states spend more than two billion dollars on state-sponsored advertising and more than $18 billion on ticket sales. The lottery also profits from high fees paid to private firms that produce and promote the games, and it has become one of the most profitable forms of gambling.

Although lotteries are illegal in many countries, governments can control them through licensing and regulation. They are often considered less regressive than other gambling activities, such as casino games and horse racing, because they have lower jackpots and payouts. However, the popularity of the lottery has led to some states raising taxes in order to subsidize it and to increase prize amounts.

In the early twenty-first century, a new generation of Americans began to buy lottery tickets. They grew up with the narrative of the American dream, that hard work and education would yield financial security. But starting in the nineteen-sixties, that arrangement began to collapse as inflation, population growth and the cost of war ate into the budgets of many states, forcing them to raise taxes or cut services.

Some states, especially those with tax-averse electorates in the Northeast and Rust Belt, created lotteries to bring in more revenue. Others, such as California, adopted Proposition 13, which drastically reduced property taxes. As federal funds dried up, and states scrambled for solutions that would not enrage their anti-tax voters, the lottery became an attractive option. For some of these states, it is now the largest source of revenue. But, as Cohen shows, the lottery is a major driver of inequality in America. People who play it may have all sorts of quote-unquote systems that are irrational in terms of statistical reasoning, and they might believe in a certain lucky number or store or time of day, but they know their odds are long. They keep buying tickets anyway because they cling to this desperate belief that the lottery is their last, best or only hope.

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