A lottery is a game in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes awarded to those who match numbers drawn at random. Lotteries are usually run by government agencies to raise money for public projects and other purposes. They are often criticized for being addictive forms of gambling, although some of the proceeds may be used for good works in the community.
The first recorded lotteries to offer a prize in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and poor relief. Alexander Hamilton, who favored them, wrote that people “will hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain, and will always prefer a small chance of winning much to a great chance of winning little.”
Lotteries have been used since ancient times in diverse contexts. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of the people and divide their land by lot, while Roman emperors used lots for everything from giving away property and slaves to selecting the winner of the circus games at the Saturnalia. Today, there are many different types of lotteries. Some, like the financial lottery, offer high cash prizes to paying participants. Others, such as those offering units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements, are based on the random allocation of limited resources.
Americans spend billions on lottery tickets each year, and some believe that winning the jackpot will improve their lives. But Cohen shows that the odds of winning are incredibly low and that most people’s spending on lottery tickets is counterproductive. Instead of winning the jackpot, he argues, they would be better off building an emergency fund or paying down credit card debt.