A lottery is a game where people pay money to have the chance of winning big prizes. They choose numbers in the hopes that those numbers will be drawn in a public drawing. The winner gets a substantial sum of money and often must pay taxes on the prize. They may also be required to do something with the money, such as use it to buy a house or car. The odds of winning are very low, but people continue to play.

Lottery is not a new phenomenon, but it has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Cohen argues that this began in the nineteen-sixties, as America’s prosperity began to wane. With rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, it became difficult for states to maintain their generous social safety nets without raising taxes or cutting services. Increasingly, the lottery seemed like a way to finance government services without either of those options.

Initially, legalization advocates sold the lottery by arguing that it would raise enough money to float most state budgets. But when these estimates proved unfalsifiable, they shifted strategies. They began to emphasize a single line item in the state budget, typically education but sometimes elder care or public parks. By tying the lottery to one particular service, they could convince voters that a vote for the lottery was not a vote against gambling but a vote for something useful.

The modern lottery is not about chance or skill, but rather about the illusion of serendipitous wealth. Winning a large amount of money is supposed to improve your life, and even the chance of winning a small sum, say ten million dollars or less, is enticing. Some people buy a single ticket, while others join a syndicate of friends and each puts in a small amount of money to increase their chances of winning.

Some people see the lottery as a kind of tax on stupidity, a way that state governments steal from the poor and uneducated by letting them gamble with their money. But Cohen argues that the lottery is more complicated than this: it plays an important role in economic fluctuation, luring people to spend their hard-earned money on a promise of instant riches. In fact, lottery sales rise as incomes fall and unemployment and poverty rates rise, and advertisements for the games are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods populated by black and Latino residents.

A lottery is a social construct that has become deeply ingrained in our culture. It has helped to shape the notion of American ingenuity and the cult of the individual, but it also contributes to growing inequality and declining economic mobility. Americans spend more than $80 billion on lotteries each year. Some of that money is spent on tickets, but much of it is used for other purposes, including emergency funds and paying down credit card debt. Cohen concludes that the lottery is more than just a scam on the stupid: it is a symptom of an economy in decline and a society in crisis.