A lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of prizes. It is often used to raise money for public purposes, such as building roads or aiding the poor. It may be played with a ticket or an online app. The winners receive a cash prize, usually after all expenses and profit for the promoter have been deducted. In addition to the main prize, smaller prizes are often offered. Lotteries are popular in the United States, where they can be found as state and national games, as well as private games held by clubs, churches, and other organizations. They are also common in many other countries, including Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The history of lotteries dates back to ancient times. Moses divided the land of Israel among the tribes by lot, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and property in a similar way. Later, the practice became common in England, where it was used to fund the European settlement of America. Even after the colonies became independent, many states held them, despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. The American revolution was financed in part through a lottery, as were the early universities of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
In modern times, the lottery has become an obsession for many Americans. Its popularity coincided with a decline in financial security for most working people, which began in the nineteen-sixties. As wages stagnated and inflation accelerated, the old American promise that hard work and education would guarantee a comfortable retirement and a decent standard of living eroded. Inflation, health-care costs, and the cost of the Vietnam War strained state budgets. For politicians who had hoped to maintain services without hiking taxes—which were highly unpopular with voters—the lottery offered a way to make money appear out of thin air.
Regardless of how much money people spend on tickets, the odds remain slim that they will win. The truth is, most of them are probably better off saving the money for an emergency fund or paying off their credit-card debt instead of trying to buy a million-dollar home with one number. But the allure of winning keeps drawing millions of people to the lottery, and its success is a reflection of the nation’s insatiable desire to feel wealthy.
The American lottery is a form of psychological manipulation, in which people trade their own financial security for the illusion that they can get rich fast. This article is excerpted from “The Lottery and the Dream of Unimaginable Wealth,” by Joanna Cohen. The full article is available to subscribers of The New Yorker or as a standalone issue.