Why Play the Lottery?

The lottery has always been a popular way for governments to raise money without raising taxes, and in the years immediately following the financial crisis, it became an even more attractive option. It seemed like a way to float government services without the risk of igniting political fires over how those new revenues should be distributed. Politicians, Cohen explains, embraced the lottery as a sort of budgetary miracle: By legalizing it, they could fund cherished services (education, for example) without incurring the stigma of raising taxes.

When states decide to institute a lottery, they need to establish the basic mechanisms that will make it work. Usually, there must be some means of recording the identity of each bettor, the amount staked, and the numbers or symbols that are selected. Some states let players choose their own numbers, while others simply have a machine select a group of numbers for them. The money paid for tickets is pooled, and the bettor can win prizes if his or her numbers are drawn.

But, as research has shown, the popularity of lotteries does not depend on a state’s actual financial health; these funds can be won with broad public approval even in good times. This success reflects a deeper truth about how much people plain old like to gamble, and what it says about our culture’s fetish for unimaginable wealth in an era of stagnant wages and limited social mobility. And while the prize size of a lottery is important, the most compelling reason to play may be that it gives people an inextricable sense of hope.

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