Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries. The odds of winning are often very low. Lotteries are popular and generate billions in revenue annually. The practice dates to ancient times, with a biblical reference to giving away property by lot and a Roman custom in which slaves were given away through a lottery-like drawing during Saturnalia celebrations. It was later used to determine military conscription, commercial promotions, and the selection of jurors. In early America, lotteries were often tangled up with slavery, and George Washington once managed a lottery in Virginia that included the chance to win human beings.
Cohen argues that the modern lottery is a cultural expression of an era in which the gulf between rich and poor widened, the promise of a secure retirement or a good job eroded, health-care costs rose, and unemployment increased. At the same time, state budgets became increasingly unbalanced. It was difficult to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters.
Cohen writes that the popularity of the lottery has been driven largely by its ability to give people the illusion that they can change their fortunes for the better with a little bit of luck. But that message is misleading, because the odds against winning are overwhelmingly high. Moreover, the winnings are often paid in a lump sum rather than an annuity, and those one-time payments are often smaller than advertised jackpots after taking into account income taxes that winners are required to pay.