The idea of winning the lottery, however improbable, is what drives many people to buy tickets. It’s a way to fantasize about unimaginable wealth, and it is the ugly underbelly of what Cohen calls our “obsession with unimaginable riches.” In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, this obsession grew in tandem with a decline in financial security for most working Americans: income gaps widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the old national promise that hard work would pay off is becoming a thing of the past.
Traditionally, governments have supported lotteries as a source of “painless” revenue, generated by players who voluntarily spend money on tickets rather than paying taxes. But lottery revenue has often been fungible, used to plug holes in education budgets or to fund police and public-works projects, leaving the targeted program no better off.
Rich people play the lottery, of course, and one of the biggest Powerball jackpots ever was won by asset managers in Greenwich, Connecticut. But they tend to buy fewer tickets than do the poor, and when they do, their purchases represent a smaller percentage of their income. The overwhelming majority of lottery players are low-income, less educated, nonwhite, or male. In short, they are the nation’s forgotten majority. In many cases, winning the lottery is their last, best, or only shot at a new life.