A lottery is a process whereby prizes, or a number of prizes, are allocated to people by chance. The prize money may be cash or goods. This type of gambling has many uses, such as the allocation of military conscription places, vacancies in professional sports teams, commercial promotions in which property is given away by chance, and even the selection of jury members. The word derives from the Dutch word lot, meaning “fate”. The first state-sponsored lotteries were established in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders with towns trying to raise money for war fortifications or aid the poor. Francis I of France introduced a public lottery in the 1500s.
When the lottery first became popular in the Northeast, states with large social safety nets and a history of declining tax rates, it was presented as a budgetary miracle, a way to maintain existing services without raising taxes and risking a backlash at the polls. Politicians, Cohen writes, could argue that a lottery would bring in hundreds of millions, thereby liberating them from ever having to contemplate the thorny subject of taxation.
Today, the lottery is a multi-billion dollar industry. The vast majority of its players, however, are not rich. They are middle-class and working class people who, despite the fact that the odds of winning are astronomical, still play for a shot at wealth they believe, on some level, is theirs for the taking. The billboards beckon with their promise of instant riches and, for some, it is true that a ticket gives them a couple of minutes or hours or days to dream and imagine a better life.