Official Lottery is a gambling operation that raises money for a state’s general fund. But unlike most gambling operations, which are privately owned and operated, the state-owned lottery is subsidized by taxpayers. In the book, Cohen argues that this subsidy is harmful both in the short term by tapping scant resources, and in the long term because it breeds short-lived excitement and, ultimately, despondency. “If someone’s key hope is the false one to win, and it is repeatedly crushed week after week, their confidence can collapse,” he writes.
The early campaigns for the modern lottery, which began in the nineteen-sixties, wildly inflated the impact of lottery proceeds on state finances. They led people to believe that schools and other public services were lavishly funded by gambling money, even though, after decades of promotion, the average lottery jackpot still only accounts for about a percent of total state revenues.
But the larger harm is the way lottery marketing exploits the psychology of addiction. Lottery advertisements, math, and the design of tickets are all designed to keep players coming back, much like Snickers bars or video games do. And just as with those products, lottery ads are heavily marketed in poor communities, which are disproportionately Black and Latino.
In his book, Cohen argues that the national obsession with unimaginable wealth, as manifested by lottery sales, coincided with the waning of American prosperity in the late-twentieth century, when incomes fell, job security and pensions eroded, and health-care costs and unemployment rose. For most working Americans, the national promise that hard work and education would allow them to enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents’ generation no longer seemed realistic.