The American Obsession With Winning the Lottery
In the United States, 50 percent of people buy lottery tickets at least once a year and contribute billions to state revenues. But it’s not just a matter of numbers, as the New York Times’ Robert Cohen writes. There’s a deeper narrative at work here, one that involves the decline of financial security for working Americans, and how the lottery has become our national obsession with unimaginable wealth.
Though Cohen nods to the history of lotteries – they’re common in Roman society (Nero was an enthusiastic participant) and are attested to in the Bible – he focuses chiefly on the modern lottery. He argues that its rise corresponded with a deterioration in the financial security of working Americans, which began in the nineteen-seventies and accelerated in the nineteen-eighties. Income inequality widened, job security and pensions declined, health-care costs rose, the middle class was squeezed, and America’s longstanding promise that hard work and education would render you better off than your parents ceased to hold true for most.
The lottery offered a solution that didn’t smack of either raising taxes or cutting services, and it became an enormously popular form of gambling. Early American politicians embraced it as a painless way to raise money for everything from Harvard and Yale to the Continental Congress’s efforts to fund the Revolutionary War. It was, as Cohen puts it, “a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who regarded lotteries as not much more risky than farming,” and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped that “most will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”
For some, winning the lottery has transformed their lives. But for most, it’s simply a pipe dream — even the biggest winners only walk away with millions after tax. The real trick, Cohen says, is to develop a system for playing the lottery that doesn’t make you feel like you’re throwing your money away.
That starts with understanding how lottery winnings are calculated, and it requires a certain level of dedication to proven strategies. For example, Richard Lustig, who won the lottery seven times in two years, suggests avoiding picking numbers that end with the same digit and focusing on covering a broad range of categories in each draw.
But most of all, it means understanding that winning the lottery isn’t about luck, but about making a smart bet on your own future. It’s an exercise that can be as trippy as it is lucrative. Just don’t be fooled by those shiny brochures — the jackpots aren’t that big. This article originally appeared in the New York Times and can be viewed here.