The Lottery and American Culture


The lottery is a major form of gambling in America, and states promote it by portraying it as something that helps “the children.” But the lottery is more than just a source of state revenue; it has also become an inextricable part of our national culture. The lottery’s success, Cohen argues, can be traced to its ability to promise unimaginable wealth and a change in one’s status. The lottery, he contends, reflects the growing sense of impermanence in contemporary American life. Its rise came at a time when the gap between rich and poor widened, job security eroded, health-care costs rose, and many working Americans were no longer able to rely on their parents’ generational promise that hard work and education would pay off and allow them to enjoy a better lifestyle than their parents did.

The result is a nation that is deeply in debt and desperate for new sources of revenue. Lottery advocates portray the games as an alternative to raising taxes or cutting state services, both of which are wildly unpopular with voters. Instead, they argue that if states are willing to invest in advertising and marketing, they can generate significant new revenues without hurting the people who buy tickets.

Although critics of the lottery are often concerned about its impact on compulsive gamblers or the regressive nature of its benefits for lower-income groups, these concerns typically focus on specific aspects of lottery operations. In particular, critics are frequently alarmed by the fact that state lotteries are in a constant state of expansion: once initial revenues level off, they encourage further growth by introducing new games, increasing promotional efforts, and generally attempting to maximize revenues through ever-more creative marketing strategies.

Most state lotteries have evolved in similar ways: they start as traditional raffles, where entrants buy tickets for a drawing to be held at some point in the future; then, they introduce new “instant” games, such as scratch-off tickets and keno, which offer smaller prizes but are much easier to win than traditional draws. Over the years, these innovations have transformed the lottery industry in a number of key ways: they have shifted attention away from the long-term potential for big-ticket jackpots to the immediate thrill of winning small sums and a change in status; and they have made the games easier to access than ever before.

In the United States, all lotteries are operated by states that grant themselves exclusive rights to operate them (i.e., monopolies) and are not permitted to compete with one another. These monopolies are financed by the state government and use their profits to fund a variety of state programs. As of August 2004, there are forty-two state lotteries and the District of Columbia. Lottery advertisements are ubiquitous, but it is important to remember that the odds of winning a lottery are quite low, and even larger jackpots have a very small chance of being won. Nonetheless, the popularity of the lottery is undeniable.