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What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them to some extent. In the United States, for example, the federal government oversees a national and state lottery. Lottery games have been around for centuries. In early America, for instance, a lottery helped finance the establishment of colonial Virginia and even entangled with the slave trade (one formerly enslaved man bought his freedom by winning a lottery prize).

But Cohen suggests that modern lottery popularity is less about chance than about something more fundamental. Its rise coincided with a decline in financial security for working people—income inequality grew, pensions and health-care benefits eroded, job insecurity was common, and the long-standing American promise that hard work would bring wealth to the next generation ceased to be true.

In response to this reality, advocates of legalized lotteries began shifting their sales pitch. Rather than arguing that the lottery could float a state’s budget, they argued that it could help cover a specific line item—often education or elder care or public parks. This approach appealed to voters’ fears of being taxed, and to politicians’ desire for a source of revenue that was not politically toxic. It also meant that, in the eyes of many voters, a vote for the lottery was not a vote supporting gambling but a vote for a specific service.