Why People Play the Lottery Isn’t a Good Thing

Across the country, people play billions of dollars a year in lottery games. They have a variety of reasons for doing so, from fun to a belief that they will win big and change their lives forever. But the odds of winning are very low. In fact, you are more likely to get struck by lightning than win the lottery. So while people play lottery games, it doesn’t mean they’re a good thing.

Lotteries were once an almost universally favored source of state revenue. They provided an opportunity for states to expand their social safety net without onerous taxes on the middle class, and they embodied Alexander Hamilton’s understanding that “every man will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain.”

But, Cohen argues, in the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. As inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War accelerated, it became increasingly difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were widely unpopular with voters.

New Hampshire, famously tax averse, approved the first modern-era state lottery in 1964, and, Cohen contends, legalization advocates began to reframe their argument. Rather than claiming that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they argued that it could pay for one particular line item—usually education, but also elder care or public parks or aid to veterans—and hoped that voters would view a vote in favor of the lottery as a vote in favor of those specific government services.