The Truth About Winning the Lottery

For many people, winning the lottery is a pipe dream. The fantasy goes something like this: you buy your ticket, get your hands on a huge sum of cash and immediately go on spending sprees, buying fancy cars and luxury vacations. You put the rest of the money into a variety of savings and investment accounts. In time, you could even buy a house in cash, turning it into equity and meaning no rent or mortgage payments, then live off the interest.

Lotteries, the game of drawing numbers for prizes, have a long history in human culture. They were practiced as early as the ancient Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and are documented in the Bible, where they were used for everything from giving away land and slaves to divining God’s will. In the fourteen-hundreds, public lotteries became common in the Low Countries for the purposes of raising funds to build town fortifications and help the poor.

Ultimately, there’s something inextricable about the lottery that appeals to people. It’s not just about the chance to win big; it’s also about the opportunity to rewrite your story and reclaim your power and dignity. In an era of inequality and limited social mobility, lottery ads are dangling the promise of instant riches.

But as Cohen explains, there’s a problem with this vision. The late-twentieth-century rise of the lottery corresponded with a decline in financial security for most Americans. Inflation ate into real wages, pensions and health-care costs soared, and the national promise that education and hard work would make you richer than your parents faded.