A lottery is a gambling arrangement in which tokens are distributed or sold and prizes are awarded by chance, usually in a drawing with numbered tickets. It can also refer to an event or activity whose outcome is decided by fate, such as the selection of units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a public school.

A state or local government runs the lottery and collects money from players for a prize pool. The prize can be a fixed amount of cash or goods. More often, the prize is a percentage of the total ticket sales. In either case, the organizer risks losing money if insufficient tickets are sold. The prize may be awarded to all entrants, or only to those with matching numbers or symbols.

Most states have lotteries, and their popularity has increased since the late nineteenth century. Cohen explains that the rise of modern lotteries started when growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with state budget crises. In the nineteen-sixties, as populations grew and inflation and Vietnam War spending drove up taxes, many states were faced with the dilemma of balancing their social safety nets and cutting programs or raising taxes. In this environment, a growing number of voters became convinced that the lottery was a painless way to raise taxes.

The first lottery was launched in New Hampshire in 1964. Thirteen other states adopted lotteries in the next decade, mostly in the Northeast and Rust Belt. Lotteries spread rapidly because, as Cohen puts it, they “appealed to people who were already accustomed to paying for things by buying tickets.” In addition, these states had large Catholic populations that were tolerant of gambling activities.

In the United States, seventeen percent of lottery players say they play more than once a week. The majority of those who play the lottery are high-school educated, middle-aged men and women in the middle of the income spectrum. They are often employed, but not always. They are the kind of people who might be expected to be skeptical of claims that the lottery is good for society, but they are entrapped by the hope that a small change in their numbers will propel them into a better life.

As the author of the book notes, this is a dangerous and unsustainable pattern. It’s also regressive, as the poor are more likely to buy tickets and more likely to lose them. The most popular lottery games are the ones that award huge sums of money, which are disproportionately likely to benefit wealthy players. This regressive trend is being accelerated by the increasing popularity of online lotteries and the expansion of Internet access to gambling sites. These changes have the potential to undermine the credibility of all state-run lotteries, even those that are marketed as charitable endeavors. To avoid this, legislators should reform the structure of state lotteries and reduce the size and complexity of their games.