Lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine who gets a prize. The prizes are usually cash, but can also be goods or services. The game is popular in many states and draws on a long tradition. The casting of lots was common in the Roman Empire—Nero loved them—and is cited frequently in biblical accounts, from selecting judges to divining God’s will.
In the sixteenth century, Dutch towns started to hold public lotteries as a way to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The lottery became popular in other European countries, including England. The word “lottery” probably comes from the Dutch noun lotte, meaning fate or chance.
Modern defenders of state-sponsored lotteries tend to argue that gambling revenue is a painless form of taxation. They point to studies that show that lottery players tend to spend an equal amount on tickets regardless of their income, and that the profits from lotteries are disproportionately distributed to lower-income groups. They also emphasize that the odds of winning are the same for every set of numbers, so any particular group of numbers is no more or less likely to win than another.
This strategy weakens the ethical objections to state-sponsored gambling, but it also obscures how regressive lottery spending is. As Cohen points out, when lottery sales increase, it’s because people’s incomes decline and unemployment rises. Moreover, lottery advertising targets low-income and black neighborhoods. As a result, lottery spending is a response to economic fluctuation and not a structural decision.