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The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are So Low That Most People Will Never Win

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In the United States, people spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets each year. They play for fun or because they believe that winning the lottery will change their lives. But the odds of winning are so low that most people will never get rich. And the winners who do win will often go bankrupt in a few years, leaving behind their families and a debt-ridden legacy. The lottery is a form of gambling that involves buying numbered tickets and choosing numbers at random. The winner wins a prize if their numbers match the ones randomly chosen by the machine. It’s a popular pastime that has its roots in ancient times, as can be seen by the Old Testament’s instructions to Moses to divide land among Israel’s people through a series of lotteries, and the Roman emperors’ use of the casting of lots for everything from property to slaves.

When Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker in 1948, it generated more letters than any other piece of fiction the magazine had ever printed. Readers were angry, disgusted, and sometimes curious or bewildered. They were also, arguably, mostly right.

The underlying fact is that, despite all the public service announcements, most state lotteries are gambling operations. The prizes may be modest — or, as in the case of New Jersey’s state lottery, enormous — but the odds of winning are very low. As the odds get worse, the more people want to play. To most people, the difference between one-in-three-million and one-in-three-hundred-million odds doesn’t matter; they just want to be in the game.

Cohen’s book begins in the nineteen-sixties, as growing awareness of the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with a booming population, rising inflation, and the cost of fighting the Vietnam War, many state governments found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. This was, as Cohen explains, an especially unpopular proposition with voters.

To thwart voter backlash, advocates of the lottery began to change their strategy. Rather than claim that the lottery would float an entire state’s budget, they started to describe it as a way to fund a specific line item, usually education but also elder care, public parks, and aid for veterans. This approach had the advantage of making campaigning easier, since a vote in favor of the lottery was a vote in support of a particular government service.

As it turns out, lottery opponents soon realized that this narrowing of the argument was counterproductive. In the years that followed, the number of state-run lotteries grew exponentially. The New York lottery, for example, launched in 1978 with one-in-3.8-million odds; today the chances of winning are even lower. And yet the popularity of the lottery shows no signs of waning. In this era of inequality and limited social mobility, many Americans appear to crave the fantasy of instant riches.

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