Lottery, a procedure for allocating prizes (money or goods) among a class of people by chance. Lotteries have been used for centuries, and their popularity as a way of raising money for public projects is illustrated by the fact that, in many countries, a large percentage of those who purchase lottery tickets win prizes. Other types of lottery include military conscription and commercial promotions in which property is awarded by drawing lots. Lotteries have never been regarded as gambling, but, in practice, their prize pool normally includes profits for the promoter and some amount of taxes or other revenue.
Lotteries were a popular pastime in ancient times, and the practice was attested to in dozens of biblical verses and Roman documents. Nero and Augustus used them to distribute gifts—properties and slaves—during Saturnalian feasts. During the seventeenth century, the Low Countries established public lotteries for the purpose of raising funds for town walls and charity.
A contemporary form of the lottery consists of paying for a ticket, selecting a group of numbers, or having them spit out by machines, and then winning if enough of one’s selections match those randomly spit out by a machine. The financial lottery is the most common of this sort. Some people play it religiously, spending $50 or $100 a week. Others play the lottery sardonically, thinking that it’s a painless tax on stupidity.
But lottery playing is no mere irrational indulgence, Cohen shows in interviews with lottery players. It is responsive to economic fluctuations; ticket sales increase as incomes fall and unemployment rises. They also increase when lottery products are promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.