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Why People Still Play the Lottery


Whether you’re playing a state lottery or just buying a Snickers bar at the grocery store, you are engaging in an activity that is fundamentally gambling. And the odds are always against you, even if the prize amounts are small. Nevertheless, a lot of people play the lottery on a regular basis. The reason is simple: money. People spend an enormous amount of money on tickets every year — some $80 billion — even though they know their chances of winning are slim to none. This money could be better spent if people bought a savings account or paid off their credit card debt, but instead they buy tickets and dream of the day that they will win big.

Lotteries are not new; the first recorded ones were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns used them to raise funds for town walls and fortifications. They also provided a way to distribute charity among the poor.

But the modern lottery began to grow rapidly in popularity in the United States in the late 1960s, when many states were struggling with budget deficits and facing a tax revolt. States were looking for ways to maintain services without raising taxes, and, as Cohen notes, lotteries seemed like “budgetary miracles,” allowing states to make revenue appear seemingly out of nowhere.

As the nation entered a period of economic turmoil in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, lottery sales surged along with income disparities and job security worries, and unemployment and poverty rates rose. The dream of hitting the lottery was an omen, or so it seemed, for an America in which the long-held promise that education and hard work would lead to economic security was rapidly disappearing.

Some critics questioned the morality of using a form of gambling to fund public services, and they complained that lottery profits were unfairly distributed to rich whites. But the majority of opponents were devout Protestants, who viewed government-sanctioned gambling as a morally unconscionable vice. They were replaced by a new group of critics in the 1980s, when affluent, educated suburbanites and businessmen complained that the jackpots were too large and the prizes weren’t awarded quickly enough.

In response, the lottery commissions have been shifting their messages. They now promote the idea that the lottery is fun and easy, rather than focusing on the odds. But they aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction: everything from the advertising to the design of the tickets is designed to keep people coming back for more. They aren’t any different than the strategies of tobacco or video-game manufacturers. The only difference is that, for the most part, lottery companies aren’t held to the same scrutiny as those other businesses. Which is a shame. For a lot of people, the lottery has become more than just a game – it’s an obsession. It has changed the way that they live their lives. And it’s not going away anytime soon.