In a lottery, players pay money to buy tickets. Then numbers are drawn at random or from machines and winners receive prizes if their numbers match the winning ones. The lottery has roots stretching back centuries: Lottery games were a feature of the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan—and are mentioned in the Bible as a way to decide everything from who gets the best figs at a harvest to what family members get which slaves. The modern-day version is a government-sponsored game of chance in which people pay to try to win big cash prizes. Americans spend more than $80 billion on the games each year, and most of the time they lose.
Cohen argues that the lottery became what it is today in the late-twentieth century, when the rising fortunes of the gambling industry collided with state budget crises. Thanks to an expanding population, increasing inflation and the cost of Vietnam, many states found it difficult to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services that voters regarded as vital.
So lottery advocates reworked their message. Instead of touting the lottery as a silver bullet that would float the entire state budget, they began to argue that it could help cover a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks or veterans’ assistance. This approach made it easier to sell the idea to a sceptical public, which came to believe that a vote for the lottery wasn’t a vote for gambling but for a specific service.