The Controversy of the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which participants buy tickets for an opportunity to win prizes. These prizes may be cash or goods. Some lotteries use randomly generated numbers to select winners; others assign a number to each ticket and then award prizes according to the number of tickets purchased. Lotteries are popular because they provide an exciting way to raise money, and have become a major source of revenue for many governments. But the lottery is also controversial because it entails gambling and because, as with all forms of gambling, some people are prone to addiction. In addition, some critics charge that the lottery promotes irrational behavior and encourages the poor to spend money they can’t afford to lose.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery was born in America in 1964 when state governments faced financial stress. Their budgets were ballooning and, for many states with generous social safety nets, it was becoming difficult to balance the books without either raising taxes or cutting services. In the face of this fiscal crisis, New Hampshire became the first state to adopt a lottery. Soon, most other states followed suit.

Lottery officials understandably wanted to maximize revenues, and their strategy was straightforward: lower the odds of winning by increasing the prize amount. But the public’s willingness to participate remained remarkably steady. The reason is that, even when the prize money is low, most people believe that the entertainment value of the tickets they purchase outweighs the disutility of a monetary loss.