Lottery: a scheme of distribution by lot or chance, or a game in which the players pay money for the privilege of choosing numbers; also, an allotment of something, as of prizes in a lottery. The term originated in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where towns held private lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. A lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay for a chance to win a prize, and the chances of winning are very low. The prize is usually money, but it can be anything from jewelry to a new car.

To play a lottery, a bettor writes his name and the amount staked on a ticket that is submitted to a drawing. Modern lotteries are usually run by computer programs that record each bettors’ selected number(s) or symbols, and determine if any are winners. Depending on the rules of a particular lottery, bettors can also choose to purchase an annuity, which pays out a lump sum over a period of years.

But if the odds of winning a lottery are so absurdly low, why do we keep playing? The answer, Cohen argues, is that the lottery represents an idealized version of America’s economic future: in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, we began to lose sight of the nation’s long-held promise that hard work and education would guarantee financial security. As the middle class eroded, pensions and jobs sank, health-care costs rose, and the federal government’s share of state income fell, lottery revenue surged.