When people play the lottery, they hope to win big. But the odds of winning are not very good, and most winners end up going broke within a few years. Instead, Americans should spend that money building an emergency fund or paying off credit card debt.
Cohen’s narrative focuses on the modern lottery, which began in the nineteen-seventies when the public’s obsession with unimaginable wealth collided with state budget crises. As the costs of a growing population, high inflation, and the war in Vietnam pushed state spending through the roof, it became hard for states to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services.
Lottery sales shot up. But while defenders of the practice sometimes cast it as a “tax on the stupid,” the reality is that lottery sales rise when incomes fall, unemployment climbs, and poverty rates rise. Lottery advertising is also disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black, Latino, or poor. Super-sized jackpots drive lottery sales, too, as they earn a windfall of free publicity on newscasts and news websites.
To help counter this, advocates of legalization shifted their strategy. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float all of a state’s expenses, they started claiming that it could cover a specific line item, invariably some government service that was popular and nonpartisan—usually education but often elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This approach sounded less like gambling and more like charity, which gave many white voters the moral cover to approve of state-run betting.