The Dark Side of the Lottery

A lottery is a gambling game in which paying participants win prizes for matching numbers. Players buy tickets, typically for $1 or less, and can either select their own numbers or mark a space on the playslip to indicate that they’d like to let the computer pick the winning set of numbers. Lottery play contributes billions to the economy every week and is a popular activity in many countries. Yet it has a dark side, as Cohen demonstrates in this article, and the odds of winning are low.

In colonial America, lotteries helped finance roads, libraries, churches, canals, and other infrastructure projects. They also helped finance private ventures, such as the building of Princeton University and Columbia College. Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, the lottery became widespread in many colonies.

Eventually, states came to rely on the money raised by lotteries, which helped them cope with budget crises that arose from population growth, inflation, and war costs. In the nineteen sixties, as America’s prosperity waned, state lottery commissions began promoting their products to keep players coming back, and using strategies similar to those employed by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.

For example, by placing large prizes in the early phases of the lottery’s history, they ensured that the prize pools would grow to impressively newsworthy sizes. They also started making the odds of winning smaller by raising prize caps and adding more numbers (which means lower odds). This strategy worked. The lottery’s popularity surged, and, as a result, it has become more likely that winning a big jackpot will involve selecting a few more of the same numbers.

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