The lottery is a game in which bettors pay a small sum for the chance to win a large amount of money. The bettors may choose a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit out numbers, and they hope that enough of their numbers will match those chosen by the drawing machine. Some lotteries offer cash prizes while others award goods or services. Cohen traces the history of lotteries, but his main focus is on its modern incarnation. This era began, he argues, when growing awareness of all the potential money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. As the population grew and inflation rose, it became increasingly difficult for states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting public services.
In an attempt to solve this dilemma, many states began offering a single line item in their budget to be financed by the lottery. For example, a state might offer to fund a certain percentage of its education budget. This narrower approach allowed advocates of the lottery to argue that a vote in favor of it was not a vote for gambling but a vote for a specific government service, such as education or elder care.
Despite these restrictions, Cohen is still convinced that the lottery has its place in American society. He argues that it is an effective way to raise money for a particular cause, and it can be a good alternative to raising taxes or cutting public services. In addition, the lottery does not affect low-income people as much as other forms of gambling, and it is less addictive.
He concedes that there is, of course, an inextricable human impulse to gamble. But he argues that there is more going on than just that. The big issue is that lottery advertising promotes the false promise that winning the lottery will fix all of life’s problems. It lures players with the promise that they can get rich quick, which is a violation of the Bible’s commandment against covetousness: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 24:10).
The odds of winning the lottery are slim, and even if you do win, it is often not as much as advertised. The average American spends $80 billion on lottery tickets each year, and most of that goes to the top 20 or 30 percent of players. This money could be better spent on building an emergency savings account or paying down debt.
Moreover, the money that states raise from lotteries is not used as well as it could be. Cohen notes that a lot of the money is spent on advertising and other administrative costs. Instead, the money could be used to help lower income Americans get ahead through education and other public investments. The best thing about the lottery, he argues, is that it makes state legislators think twice about other kinds of gambling.