The word lottery has a long history, but Cohen writes that its modern form began in the nineteen-sixties, when popular awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business met with state budget crises. In America, where voters were averse to taxes, lotteries provided governments with a revenue source that didn’t offend antitax advocates. Lottery revenue rose in tandem with the nation’s waning prosperity, as the income gap between rich and poor widened, pensions eroded, job security vanished, health-care costs skyrocketed, and our long-standing national promise that education and hard work would render most children better off than their parents ceased to hold true.
Lottery tickets are sold in every state, with players ranging from the occasional Powerball buyer to the “compulsive” who picks up one ticket at a time while paying for groceries at a Dollar General. The players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite; one in eight Americans plays the lottery at least once a year. Their participation may seem benign, but it’s actually a huge revenue generator, bringing in between 70 and 80 percent of total lottery sales. It’s a big gamble that, for many, is their last, best, or only hope at a life of comfort and security.
The odds of winning are long. But that’s not what draws people to the game; it’s the promise of instant riches, of escaping from whatever impoverished existence they lead. This isn’t an inextricable human impulse, and there are, as Cohen points out, some who will never play, but for the vast majority, it’s all about the money.
What’s more, state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. Everything about their marketing, from the look of the lottery tickets to the math behind them, is designed to keep people playing. It’s not so much different than the tactics of tobacco companies or video-game makers.
While the unfolding of this story reveals the evil nature of humanity, it also exposes the ways in which oppressive norms and cultures deem hopes of liberalization as mere dreams to be abandoned. The story makes us ask why, if this is truly the case, we continue to tolerate such abuse without even the slightest flinch of conscience. Ultimately, though, the story reveals that human nature is inexorably cruel and ugly. It will always be that way. Then, as now, we must choose whether to allow it to continue.