For a Dollar and a Dream

Roman Mars [00:00:02] Myrtle Beach is 60 miles made just for you. It’s simply known as “the beach” because once you visit, you’ll know that this is where you belong. Myrtle Beach has 60 miles of stunning sandy beaches, over 2000 restaurants serving up the finest feel good food on the East Coast, 90 golf courses ranging in difficulty, 50 themed mini golf courses, and so much more, including amusement park rides, waterslides, fishing, shows, and live music every single night. Whatever you want, the beach has it by the boatload. You belong at the beach. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Start planning your getaway at This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In 2022, Americans spent more than $100 billion on lottery tickets. 

Newscaster #1 [00:01:10] Well, millions of Americans are dreaming about winning tomorrow’s Mega Millions jackpot, now the largest in world history… 

Newscaster #2 [00:01:17] Mystery surrounds the winner of the $2.04 billion lotto ticket… 

Newscaster #3 [00:01:21] Powerball excitement going more than what we’ve seen over the last week. But after another rollover, we’re now seeing a record jackpot, leading to another dash for tickets.

Roman Mars [00:01:32] From scratchers to the Powerball, the lottery is the most popular form of gambling in the United States. But the likelihood that you will win a lottery like the Powerball is about one in 292 million. Statistically, you’re more likely to get attacked by a shark, give birth to quintuplets, or even get crushed by a meteorite. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:01:52] You know, the lottery is often called a tax on people who are bad at math because there’s a perception that lottery players don’t understand the odds against them and have these wishful, hopeful beliefs that a lottery will solve all of their financial problems. 

Roman Mars [00:02:03] That’s Jonathan D. Cohen. He’s a historian and author of the book For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America. Jonathan says it isn’t just the people playing the lottery who irrationally think the game will solve all their financial woes. The states running the lotteries also suffer from the same delusion. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:02:22] That is, of course, how we have lotteries in the first place is voters–policy makers–who believed wishfully, stupidly, hopefully, that a lottery would solve all of their financial problems. And despite mounting evidence–even after other states have failed and failed and failed again–these voters and policymakers reasoned that a lottery would solve all of their financial problems in the exact same way that gamblers are sort of hooked on this belief that it’s going to work for them. 

Roman Mars [00:02:48] Today, we’re going to talk with Jonathan about how the lottery got to be as big as it is now and what is next for these games if younger people aren’t buying into the false promises of a life-changing jackpot? So, Jonathan, what sparked your interest in the lottery? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:03:06] Yeah, I have two sort of superhero origin stories, I think, when it comes to the lottery. The first is I’m a child of the Great Recession. You know, that was sort of the animating political moment for me as a 16, 17-year-old. So, the themes of economic inequality, opportunity, and just the day-to-day stuff that people do to try to get by and to make a better life for themselves was really salient for me going into graduate school and thinking about American history. And then, of course, the real answer is that I also grew up playing board games and still play board games. And as a result, I think I’m willing to take games and play maybe more seriously than other historians might. 

Roman Mars [00:03:44] Okay, so, like, what is it about the Association of Board Games and the lottery that, you know, makes it fascinating to you? Is it because it’s a game that no one can win? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:03:56] Okay, so it’s a couple of things. So first of all, it’s ironic that, you know, as you may know, the more serious of a board game you are, the less interested you are in games that are based around luck. So, you know, the games that I play, you’ll be shocked to hear, don’t have dice–don’t have, like, scratch off ticket equivalents. But there is this old adage that I first heard from the historian Ann Fabian that gamblers don’t read, and readers don’t gamble–and that these are two separate populations. And she has this amazing anecdote, which she remembered doing her own dissertation research in the 1980s, and she would go to the New York Public Library and she could tell immediately in those old calling card stacks, you know, sorted by subject, she could tell immediately where gambling started because they were darker–the cards were darker–because people had been thumbing through them, looking for guidebooks to tell them how to pick lottery numbers. So, her evidence that gamblers do, in fact, read a lot. I do think the Venn diagram of people I went to graduate school and people who play lottery tickets might not be a perfect circle. But the games, the play, this desire to win–I think there are certainly some parallels between, you know, dorky board games like the ones I participated in and then the lottery tickets, which, as you said, are sort of very different as an activity. 

Roman Mars [00:05:06] Could you talk a little bit about the precursors to the lottery as we know it? What were people doing that sort of took the place of the lottery, you know, before the ’70s, when these really took off. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:05:18] So, I mean, the real precursor was, like, the drawing of lots, you know, as is described in the Bible–and this sort of acknowledgment that forces of chance can be used for distributing money, for decision making. But the actual answer to your question is there were sort of two major precursors to what we now have as the state-run lottery system. The first being illegal numbers games, which were ubiquitous, particularly in urban Black communities in the Northeast and the Rust Belt–but played also by Latino gamblers, by white working-class gamblers, you name it. And these are daily lotteries with three or four digits that are designed in this ingenious way that if you know where to look in the newspaper, you can find the winning number. So maybe it’s the last three digits of the stock exchange, for example, for the day. So theoretically, before exists, that’s as good a source as any of a random number that’s publicly accessible–that can’t be rigged. And, again, I can’t underemphasize how popular these were in poor Black communities in particular but then all sorts of other communities all over the country, too, with some organized crime involvement. Part of the appeal of numbers games, first of all, is that you can pick your own numbers, which, when the first state run lottery games come in, you can’t do for a long time. And the real appeal is that you can play for as little as a nickel. And this is sort of how the numbers games got started in this precursor game called Policy, where it used to be, like, a lottery ticket in colonial America would be the equivalent today of, like, a luxury good. You know, it’s just sort of expensive, especially in a cash poor, agrarian society. To put together money for a lottery ticket–you know–not accessible to everyone. And a numbers game, sort of very definitionally–very baked into the game–is that you can play for a nickel, play for a couple of pennies, and get a 500, 600-fold return on your investment. Second part of it is the fact that you can pick your own numbers, which you can play in a variety of ways. And then you have more likely than not a network–someone you know who comes by your house every day, like your milkman or the guy delivering your paper, to pick up your numbers bet. Or he knows, “Hey, Roman plays four, three, two every Friday. I’ll just put this down for him and assume that he’s going to play it. And if it hits, we’ll pay him out.” So, it sounds quaint. You forget all the organized crime happening behind the surface in the turf wars and the, you know, literal murdering that’s going on to fight for control of these games in some big cities. The other equivalent for the precursor are these lotteries based overseas. It’s called the Irish Sweepstakes. These are just sort of, like, basically glorified raffles that you can buy tickets for. I would say no one knows if anyone actually won, except my mom claims that the janitor of her building won and that’s what allowed him to buy an apartment next to hers. It’s because he won the Irish Sweepstakes. So, I guess at least one person in 1960s Queens won the Irish Sweepstakes at least one time. 

Roman Mars [00:08:07] So the lottery, as we know it, didn’t just happen. There were these few stutter steps to get to the game that we recognize today. So, can you tell me about how the game design changed to get the lottery that we know now? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:08:21] So the New Hampshire Lottery, which is the first state lottery, born in 1964, comes under these conditions that it has a lot riding against it. And there’s a lot of hurdles that stand in its way. The federal government in the 1960s was not supportive of the New Hampshire lottery legalizing a state-run game, and they put all these hurdles in the way. So, when the New Hampshire Lottery sweepstakes is trying to start up in the 1960s, part of their lottery wheel–the box that they’re going to use for the drawings and for submitting tickets–is manufactured out of state. And they can’t get it into New Hampshire because that would require the interstate transportation of gambling paraphernalia. I can’t remember; they either have to, like, build it in New Hampshire, or they have to, like, drive it through Canada so it technically isn’t violating interstate commerce laws. But just an example of the problems that these early state lotteries faced and the hoops they had to jump through to sort of navigate the problems created for them by the federal government. And then there’s also, maybe more important for the actual design of the games, a federal excise tax on all gambling revenue–state revenue–with a carve out for horse racing. So, horse racing is kosher and doesn’t need to be taxed, but everything else is not. So, what the New Hampshire Lottery does as a result is this absolutely preposterous game design where you buy a lottery ticket. It’s expensive, first of all. And it’s not really a lottery ticket. You write your name on it, you write your address on it. So first of all, you have to declare that you’re gambling at a time when gambling isn’t totally chilled, like, culturally just yet. And then they do a drawing. But the drawing isn’t of a name on a ticket, it’s of a horse race. And they do a separate drawing of a number of a horse. And then they draw a name. And they tie each name to a horse in the designated horse race. So, then you look up, “Oh, here in this 1946 race that we randomly draw on, the seventh horse won. Oh, and the ticket tying the 1946 race to the seventh horse belonged to John Smith of Dover, New Hampshire. Congratulations. You won the lottery.”. 

Roman Mars [00:10:22] Wow. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:10:23] Which all of $600,000 at the time. So, you know, we’re talking about pennies. But this is, again, this insane game design that takes many weeks or months to actually, you know, have a drawing to get enough money. They do some live horse racing, like sweepstakes. But as you said, it doesn’t work. And it’s really only starting in 1970 when the New Jersey Lottery starts up and adds a weekly game that the states finally figure it out. The New Jersey Lottery–which starts in 1970–they really hit on the winning formula for how these early lotteries are going to operate. And rather than these expensive tickets with drawings that take weeks or months, they offer 50 cent tickets for weekly games, with $50,000 drawings. So pretty good-sized jackpots for the time that move really, really quickly and that will entice a lot more people to play. Cheap tickets, accessible tickets sold everywhere. You know, the New York Lottery–when they start up–they try to sell the tickets in banks because they think it will be secure. And then Congress is like, “No f***ing way. You can’t do that. You can’t sell lottery tickets in banks. That’s insane. It’s the exact opposite of the sort of ethic of savings that banks are supposed to be about.” But in New Jersey, they’re selling them in liquor stores and in bars and in barbershops. Like, really, they get closer to the modern state lottery sales ethic and ethos that we’ve come to be familiar with today. 

Roman Mars [00:11:45] So something that I find really interesting is that inside of the sort of design of the game, frequency is really important–or immediacy. Like, you buy a ticket, you want it to, like, pay out, you know, that day or, you know, like, really soon. And that’s the only real way for these things to take off. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:12:04] Right. And the real example of this is scratch tickets, which are introduced for the first time in Massachusetts in 1974 and then just spread like wildfire across lottery states and then eventually to non-lottery states very, very quickly because of that immediacy that they offer. 

Roman Mars [00:12:20] I’m truly fascinated by the way that state lotteries spread like a contact virus. Like, if the state next to you has a lottery and your state doesn’t have a lottery, you are going to get the lottery very soon. Can you describe what is going on there, the sort of psychology of that, and how it infects state legislatures? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:12:40] Yeah, there are a lot of parallels between the spread of state lotteries in this first wave–so from 1963 to 1977–and what we’re seeing today with marijuana legalization, with sports betting. Lots of other state policies work this way, which is that once a neighboring state legalizes something–anything–invariably people who live outside that state are going to come over and play your lottery, play your sports betting, or buy your weed. Of course, what happens in practice is that by more states legalizing, it just spreads it further, as you said, like a contact virus. So, this logic–and I’m going to keep coming back to this because this is, I think, the key point here–this belief that gambling is inevitable sort of keeps the spread going and going and keeps adding new games and keeps adding new states. But it’s not inevitable. It’s inevitable because states make it so by assuming that it is inevitable in the first place. 

Roman Mars [00:13:31] Another thing you talk about in your book is that these august bodies take great pains to justify the lottery and sort of square it with their morals. And one of the ways they do this is by saying, “Well, if we have a legalized form of this, we can sort of suppress the mafia version of the lottery or the numbers version–all the illegal versions of this.” Can you talk about how the lottery is sold to the public as an effective way to suppress vice and even could be virtuous because buying a lottery ticket, you know, then fills the state’s coffers so it can buy good things and fund wholesome programs?

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:14:05] Yeah. So, this is the lesson that people take away from prohibition–that there’s no point in trying to suppress something that people are trying to do anyway. I mean, the prohibition of alcohol. This is happening anyway illegally. It is draining money from our police resources and our state resources. The state might as well legalize it to make money. And as you said, we could even make it a civic good, we can fund our government, we’ll never have to pay taxes again because we’ll have all this money that is being raised by illegal gaming. So that’s the other crazy point; all these investigations into illegal gambling–all they do is just give people the impression that gambling is really, really lucrative and have this ironic consequence of incentivizing states to just legalize it because they think it’s going to be super profitable, rather than turn people off from gambling. Imagine every time there was a drug bust, people are like, “Oh, man. We should legalize heroin. Look at how much money all the drug dealers are making.” It doesn’t happen, but that’s, like, the equivalent of what happened with lotteries in the ’60s and ’70s. 

Roman Mars [00:15:02] Yeah. And so, describe that. When state sponsored lotteries are first being sort of proposed as the solution to the state’s financial woes, what are people saying? And then what is the sort of result of it? Like, their estimations for what they’re going to get out of this are, you know, really outsized and through the roof? And then in the end, why is it that they’re not paying out the way that they think they are? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:15:28] Right. So, this is what I think takes it from just regular politicians sort of overselling the thing that they’re doing to why it’s irrational, stupid, hopeful, wishful in the way that gamblers behave. In the 1960s and ’70s, there’s this belief–and I’m not exaggerating–that a lottery is going to singularly solve states’ financial problems. A New Jersey congressman says that “We can increase every state service in New Jersey four times over if we make numbers games legal.” The belief that we’ll never have to pay taxes ever again because we have a lottery. And even this crazy cognitive dissonance–even after it doesn’t work and the states have to raise taxes–this belief, “Hey, why are we raising taxes? Didn’t we have a lottery? Shouldn’t that have solved all of our financial problems?” So that’s sort of the panacea–the first version of the panacea. And then you say, “Okay, it doesn’t work in the Northeast and Rust Belt. Surely these states sort of got wise and limited their expectations.” And they did but in a whole new magic bullety kind of way where they now go into the 1980s, not thinking that the lottery is going to solve all the problems for the entire state, but “Oh, it will surely solve all of our education problems. Or it will singularly fund public parks or police services.” So, it’s still a panacea, but we’ve just sort of limited ourselves. And then that panacea doesn’t work. And there’s still this cognitive dissonance. And then in California, for example, which uses a lottery in 1984 to raise money for education, there’s this belief even afterwards that it’s now hard to raise taxes for education because people think that the lottery is funding education and that we don’t need any more money to pay for schools. And of course, that doesn’t work. It’s like 2% of the California education budget. But then come the ’90s–still this cognitive dissonance; “Oh, if we have a lottery…” It’s like that Arrested Development line: “It fails for everybody else, but surely it’ll work for us.” Like, “Oh, it will still solve all of our problems, but we’ll just reduce the problems a little bit more that they’re going to solve.” In Georgia and other states in particular, it’s “We don’t have enough students going to college, specifically in state colleges and universities. So, we’ll just use our lottery money to pay for that.” Okay, finally, it works first of all. Finally, the lottery actually sort of fulfills its mandate and does what they say it’s going to do. But this belief over and over again–“It’s going to solve problem X.” And it doesn’t solve X. “Oh, okay. But it will definitely solve problem Y.” It didn’t solve problems Y. “Oh, it’ll maybe solve this other problem instead.” They can’t just say, “Hey, the lottery will be nice. It’ll raise 2% of state revenue.” You know, they can’t do that. They have to sort of have this wing and a prayer that it’s going to be a jackpot–pun intended–for the state. 

Roman Mars [00:17:58] Right. And 2% of state revenue isn’t nearly enough to fund all the services that they’re promising. That’s really interesting. So, could you describe what are the typical state lotto games and how they work? And, you know, what customer base each of the games are appealing to? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:18:16] If we’re thinking about all 45 lottery states–because there are some games that are only played in some states–there are really three big games that lotteries rely on. The first and the one that needs to be mentioned first are scratch tickets, which account for as much as 60% to 65% of total annual lottery sales. And so, there are a couple of different players for this. What we’ve seen recently in scratch tickets is what I would call the sort of “jackpotification” of the games, where now you’re buying scratch tickets that can cost as much as $100 in Texas. And we’ve gone from the offered sort of distant chance at a big prize, but you’re really playing for sort of the medium prize–to now there are scratch tickets that offer a $15 million jackpot. It’s sort of meant to rival the lotto rollover Powerball Mega Millions type games. What’s cool about scratch tickets is the prize curve is shaped like a U–if you imagine–the letter U. There are a lot of prizes concentrated at the very, very beginning–so free tickets, $2 back, $5 back, and then there’s a big gap, and then there’s prizes at the very top, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 more, on the assumption that no one’s getting out of bed for $1,000. And on the assumption that if you win $5, $10, $20, you’ll probably put that back into more tickets. So, you can play for your jackpot, and you can sort of keep playing, keep playing, keep playing because you put $20 in, you get ten back. Put ten in, you get seven back. Put seven in, you know, etc… All of a sudden, you spent $40 in lottery tickets, and you didn’t even have $40 to begin with. That’s sort of the bread and butter for lottery commissions. As a result, there are many types of players for those games. They are one of the most regressive lottery games, meaning the poorer players play them more often. They spend a higher percentage of their money on them relative to other games. The other sort of major regressive game in particular are numbers games, which we’ve already covered, which remain actually particularly and disproportionately popular among Black gamblers and again, sort of have historical roots in the Black community that sort of carry them forward to today. So, the state just in the mid1970s just usurped these illegal games. And now basically they haven’t changed the design–the design that was created in 1924 by a Black immigrant from the Dutch West Indies named Casper Holstein. They don’t use the newspaper anymore to pick the winning number, but it’s the same exact game design now, just run by your state government. 

Roman Mars [00:20:39] So eventually, rather than having the newspaper provide the numbers, they have that, you know, big cage that they roll in the little balls, and they pick out random numbers. I used to watch it on TV. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:20:49] Yes, they have lottery balls in most states. Maryland is now going digital, and there’s a whole crisis of faith. People I talked to in my book already think the lottery is rigged, right? All these people who have lost faith in the system–they play anyway because they don’t see any other chance. And now doing away from lottery balls, I think, for more people is just going to be even one more, like, “All right, they already pick numbers.” This is what the gangsters used to do all the time–but when they could get away with it–was pick numbers that they knew no one had played. They say, “Oh, tons of people have played one, six, three today. We shouldn’t let that be the winning number. You know, it should be seven, two, one, which only a couple of people played, so we’re not going to lose as much money if that comes up.” So, there’s all these beliefs that state lotteries do that. 

Roman Mars [00:21:26] And then what are their jackpots like? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:21:28] These games are not jackpot-based games. These are fixed payout games. 

Roman Mars [00:21:32] Describe the difference between a jackpot and a fixed payout. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:21:34] So there’s a term called “parimutuel betting.” So, this refers to Powerball Mega Millions, which is my last category that I want to get into, which is where the jackpot varies depending on the amount that people bet. Whereas numbers games are fixed payout in that $1, if you win, will net you a $400, $500 payout. It doesn’t matter how many other people bet on that number. A winning number pays out a certain amount every time for every dollar that you spend on it. 

Roman Mars [00:21:59] Got it. Got it. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:22:01] And then the last one. So, 13%, 15% of total annual lottery sales are lotto games. Most familiar are Powerball and Mega Millions, which are the multistate iterations of lotto games. But a lot of states, especially populous states like California, also have their own lotto games; the tickets are only playable in California–don’t have as big prizes, but also as a result, don’t have quite as long odds. 

Roman Mars [00:22:26] Right. So, the jackpot is determined by the number of people buying in, which is what leads to these huge jackpots. But that wasn’t always the case. This was this innovation that came a little bit later. Can you describe the lotto and how that functions? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:22:42] Sure. Well, the lotto has its roots in 15th century Italy, but I’m not going to get into that. But it’s exactly as you described. First introduced in Massachusetts in 1978 and then in New York. And New York is the one that really figures out the formula in 1978. The point of the game is there is a predetermined share of every ticket that goes specifically to the top prize. So, for every dollar spent on lotto tickets–I’m making up these numbers–50% goes to the top prize, 25% goes to secondary prizes, and then 25% goes to the state or something. So, the more people bet, the bigger the jackpot will get. Did not mean to rhyme. But you do importantly have a starting price. So right now, Powerball Mega Millions start at 20 million, even if no one plays. And the appeal of these games is as weeks, months go on and no one wins–but people keep buying tickets–the prize can keep going up. And in the 1980s, states did away with prize caps. So now, theoretically, prizes can go forever. And, you know, as we speak, there’s a $1.3 billion Mega Millions drawing tonight that I’m probably not going to win. And, you know, two months ago, there was a $2.3 billion Powerball jackpot that, you know, was the largest in U.S. history because basically people didn’t get lucky. Like, no one got lucky for a couple of months. And that’s what let the prizes keep growing. And people kept throwing money at it, hoping to win. And the odds are one in 302 million. And you’re not going to win. And eventually someone does. 

Roman Mars [00:24:08] And in the case of the Powerball, you got these growing jackpots that people aren’t winning from week to week, and you’re choosing from a set of numbers for, you know, your chance to win. But we get the addition of one extra Powerball number, which might not seem like a big deal, but it really changes the odds drastically. Can you describe that? You know, from a design perspective, what is that doing? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:24:29] Yeah. So over time, over the last few decades, basically state lottery commissions have realized that people don’t care about the odds of winning. They just care about how big the jackpots are. So, they have made the games harder and harder to win, starting in the late ’80s, early ’90s with the introduction of what was then called Lotto America, ultimately called Powerball–this game where in addition to having to pick I think it was originally five numbers from a field ranging from one through 45, you also had to pick a sixth number. I think at the time it was ranging between one and 26. That doesn’t seem that hard but on paper makes the odds even that much more preposterous and that much harder to hit. What you see a lot–and you see this actually both with scratch tickets and with lotto games–is states sort of tricking your brain and fostering this belief that, “Oh, the winning numbers had a 55, and my ticket had a 56.” So, I was supposed to feel as if I was only one number away, when of course that has no bearing on, like, what lottery ball was randomly drawn in the drawing. The real bad one with this is scratch tickets where if you’re winning number, let’s say, is a 13 or a three, the numbers you scratch might be like a two–which is, you know, one number away from a three, so, “Oh, I’m so close”–or maybe an eight, which when you first scratch it might look like a three. So, they’re called “heart stoppers”–tickets that are meant to make you think for a moment that you won, only to realize that you lost, and you want to chase that win with another ticket. 

Roman Mars [00:26:00] How did the advent of random number picking when you buy a ticket change the game? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:26:08] In one really funny way, they made the lines shorter. Imagine it’s the equivalent of Powerball, but it’s only in your state. So, it’s New York, 1985. Everyone’s waiting in line for this record breaking $40 million jackpot. It’s the largest in American history. And there are lines out the door of every retailer because everyone’s waiting in line to buy tickets. But all of these people–rich, middle-class people–don’t know how to fill out the lottery slip, and they have to pick their own numbers. But New York State has not yet introduced Quick Pick, which is the printing of random tickets. So that’s one sort of weird, funny way. An interesting theory I read from an Illinois lottery commissioner from 1990 is that the advent of Quick Pick made it less likely that lottery prizes would roll over. When people had to pick their own numbers, guess what numbers they picked, ranging specifically between one and 31 because those are dates, birthdays, etc… Once there’s a random printing of tickets, a wider range of numbers is covered for every drawing because it used to be that everyone’s playing between numbers between one and 31. And that would make it theoretically less likely that the prize would roll over because someone now has a ticket with numbers in the 50s and 90s but that they never would have picked before. So, it’s a cool theory that’s a very 99% Invisible kind of fact. I don’t know how true it is. I mean, at this point I think a lot of people play Quick Pick. But yeah. And then it also makes it, like, so that my dad will play because he’s not going to, like, figure out how to fill out the lottery slip. You know what I mean? But he will just hand $2 to the guy and expect a lottery ticket in return. 

Roman Mars [00:27:45] Yeah, it’s really interesting because from the point of view of trying to raise jackpots or trying to raise money, it makes it more frictionless to have a Quick Pick. But it also makes it more likely that, you know, people will get a prize because they would pick numbers that would be… 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:28:03] So far, they’ve been doing just fine in getting big prizes. So, yeah. 

Roman Mars [00:28:08] Can you talk about how the games are designed in relation to the odds? Like, it seems like the daily, smaller jackpot games have odds of winning that you can kind of wrap your head around. There’s, like, three numbers–one through nine. It seems almost, you know, comparatively easy to pick a winner. And that’s why, you know, paying a buck for a small jackpot feels rational. But when the jackpot is, you know, something like the Mega Millions, it gets so huge, it doesn’t matter if the odds of picking the winning number is infinitesimally small. The upside of the big jackpot is so overwhelming that it just kind of short circuits our brains. I mean, do I have that right? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:28:46] No, no, no. Yeah. No, you’re hitting on a couple of things. So, these games have very different player bases. And you’re right, folks at the very bottom income quintile, right. Don’t actually play the lottery all that disproportionately because they don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on lottery tickets. But when they do play, they’re not–exactly to your point–going to invest $2 in a Mega Millions ticket with a one in 302 million odds of a giant jackpot. They’re playing a numbers game, trying to turn $1 into $400, or buying a cheap scratch ticket. They’re actually the ones hoping for that $100,000 payout. You know, they’re not playing for a jackpot. They’re just playing to get through the day. It’s that next level up–that next group up–21st to 60th, roughly, of the income distribution, who have disposable income to play, maybe perceive that they don’t have a lot of opportunities in their life to get rich or to get out or for the American dream or whatever you want to call it. And they’re the ones who are willing to spend $2 on the distant, distant, distant odds of 1.3 billion. And then the other, you know, factor here–people can’t tell the difference between one and 4 million odds of winning, one in 40 million odds of winning, or one in 400 million odds of winning. But they sure as hell can tell the difference between a $4 million, $40 million, or $400 million jackpot. So, one in 4 million odds of winning already feels so distant, that they might as well be one in 400. And then you get to play for a lot more money. 

Roman Mars [00:30:14] It kind of short circuits our brain when the number gets so big because it’s like, “Why not?” 

Barney Gumble [00:30:19] You know, I heard the jackpot’s up to $130 million. 

Homer Simpson [00:30:25] $130 million? 

Barney Gumble [00:30:27] Did you say $130 million? 

Homer Simpson [00:30:30] Yeah! 

Barney Gumble [00:30:30] Wow! 

Roman Mars [00:30:37] When we come back, we’ll talk about what the future of what the lottery looks like if people are no longer buying in. More with Jonathan D. Cohen after this. Peace of mind can be hard to come by, but a good life insurance policy can give you peace of mind that if something happens to you, your family will have a safety net. Now is a great time to futureproof your family’s finances by getting life insurance. And Policygenius gives you a smarter way to find and buy it. With Policygenius, you can find life insurance policies that start at just $25 per month for $1 million of coverage. Some options offer coverage in as little as a week and avoid unnecessary medical exams. The technology makes it easy to compare life insurance quotes from America’s top insurers so that you can find the lowest price. Policygenius has licensed agents who can help you find the best fit for your needs. They work for you, not the insurance companies, which means that they don’t have an incentive to recommend one insurer over another. Your loved ones deserve a financial safety net. You deserve a smarter way to find and buy it. Head to or click the link in the description to get your free life insurance quotes and see how much you can save. That’s So, in a country like the U.S., which rightly or wrongly defines itself through merit–the idea that good things come to people who work hard–how does the lotto fit in with that sort of self-mythology? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:32:32] Yeah. So, there’s this belief that we live in a meritocracy, where good things happen to good people and specifically good things happen if you work hard. Working hard always pays off. And that theory, if you think about it, doesn’t leave a lot of room for chance. It sort of cuts out probability. It says, “No, there’s a straight line between hard work and payoff and success.” Gambling absolutely spits in the face of that and really says, “Hey, you know, the world is totally random. And people get rich through no fault of their own, you know, because they pick the numbers one day.” So, I think that that story of a meretricious society is the one we tell ourselves. But there’s a lot of evidence that underneath that story there’s a lot of gambling going on and that a lot of people–particularly people of color or those who have been excluded from the traditional mainstream economy–have long turned to the luck of the draw for, you know, the American dream that they saw but wasn’t available to them through the traditional economy. 

Roman Mars [00:33:30] And what about religion? How’s the lottery fit in with that? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:33:32] Yeah, so maybe not coincidentally, the rise of state lotteries in the 1970s coincides with the rise of the prosperity gospel and this sort of inflection of meretricious money or what one scholar calls “a miraculous meritocracy”–this belief that if you’re deserving, miracles will happen for you. Specifically, financial miracles will happen for you if you give to the church, if you pray, if you, you know, do X, Y, Z. And a lottery fits in with that as the quintessential vehicle of chance. All of a sudden we get, in the 1970s, all these lottery players who win the lottery, who rather than see it as a vehicle of chance, “Oh, no, God gave me my money. Oh, I deserve my money.” They felt they deserved to be rich but weren’t. And all of a sudden, they are. And if you’re not willing to ascribe your jackpot to random probability, there’s sort of only one explanation. And that is to look heavenwards–to assume that God is the one who gave you your money. 

Roman Mars [00:34:31] So in your book, you mention that younger generations are much less inclined to play the lottery. Do you know why that is and what that means for the future of lotteries in the U.S.? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:34:45] Yeah, well, so there’s only sort of anecdotal evidence. But the evidence that exists is that Gen Z and actually millennials, too, are not as interested in lottery tickets as older generations. My sort of personal pet theory for this is that there are tons of great ways to get a gambling fix nowadays–crypto, Robinhood, sports betting in some states. And in particular those games let you feel smart. If you win, it’s not just luck of the draw, right? It’s not just, like, totally random chance. It is like if you win, it’s because you saw that that Houston Rockets line was three points too low, and you took advantage of it because you’re a genius. And there’s just as much sort of frictionless betting–even more so frictionless, you know, because it’s so accessible online. So, they’re doing the same thing. And I actually found a great quote from someone on the wallstreetbets Reddit page during the whole GameStop thing, where you could just, like, cut out the word “GameStop” and put in the words “lottery tickets,” and it sounds exactly like a lottery player. Like, “This is my only chance. This is my best way to get rich and then put all my eggs in a basket and really make something of myself. And I know that the odds might be long, and I know that it might be a stupid financial investment on paper, but I’m going to do it.” And I think, again, they’re really getting the same thing that lottery players get out of it, but they’re just finding it in different ways. And this is, I’m sure, an issue of much consternation for lottery commissioners who don’t want the games to fade away and who, you know, want to get these younger generations hooked. 

Roman Mars [00:36:16] I mean, do you think that the way that these lotteries can draw in younger players is by making the jackpot so big? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:36:21] Yeah, that definitely helps because what that does is it gets people through the door. And once they’re in the door, you have them in a bunch of ways. Maybe you get them hooked on their own numbers, and they feel like they have to play. So Roman plays his numbers every day for a month. Now he’s like, “All right, I’ve had fun playing the lottery. I’m going to stop.” But then what you get is something called “regret aversion,” where Roman wants to stop, but he actually doesn’t want to stop because if the lottery hit on his numbers, he would feel so angry that he didn’t play. So, he avoids not because he wants to play but because he doesn’t want to not play. So that’s how the big jackpot games–you know, they seem benign–but it’s actually sort of a gateway drug for people to get in the door. So that certainly will help. And the media attention that lotteries get during those jackpots, you know, is harmful in that way. I think the real way they’re going after them is trying to transfer to cashless ticket sales. You know, some states–Massachusetts, my home state, until very recently–you can only buy tickets in cash. And then online, you know, through apps and stuff is the real targeting. 

Roman Mars [00:37:25] All right. So, Jonathan, here’s the question. All right. Knowing everything you know, do you think lotteries are bad? Because I think they’re kind of bad. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:37:35] I actually think if you’d asked me in 1970, I would have said, “No. They’re actually probably on net good.” There really was all this gambling happening anyway. It really is feeding into, in some cases, organized crime. I think lotteries, you know, at the time were a good innovation. I think now, 2023, they are clearly doing more harm than good and should not exist in their current form in the current iteration in the modern American society. 

Roman Mars [00:38:03] What is the accumulation of empirical facts over that time that make you think that lotteries are bad now? 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:38:10] Yeah, I’ll do it in the sort of net, you know… Give credit where they’re due. Lotteries have, by my estimation, raised, I think, $252 billion for states over the course of five plus decades, which, you know, great. Good for them. The question, of course, is the cost of that money. And there are a couple. First of all, of course, is the fact that they are regressive. And if someone were to introduce a tax today with the regressivity and the distribution of lotteries, people would roll their eyes–they would never get passed just because of knowing who is going to buy into this tax. Of course, it’s voluntary, but that’s the way they justify it. So that’s one major effect. Another is the ways that lotteries have warped Americans’ beliefs about social mobility. And they have, I quote one journalist who calls it, “a blinding beacon” for people who see the lottery as their last, best, only chance for a way out. Another one that is really hard to quantify is just the way they’ve warped Americans’ belief in wealth and opulence in general. And since the 1980s, the 1990s–with the valorization of wealth and the rise of the celebrity CEO–the lotteries have helped people, I think, become okay with inequality on the assumption that maybe they are going to get rich one day too and they don’t want to have to pay estate taxes either when not if they become a billionaire. Again, really hard to quantify. That first one about the regressivity is the big one. But that’s what leads me to believe, on net, lotteries are bad. I didn’t come into the lottery topic with a bone to pick. I’m not a lottery winner or loser. None of my parents played growing up. But that is sort of my conclusion, looking at the net of evidence about this issue. 

Roman Mars [00:40:04] The book is called For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America. Thank you so much, Jonathan, for talking with us. 

Jonathan D. Cohen [00:40:09] Thanks. And good luck. 

Roman Mars [00:40:14] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Edited by Vivian Le. Original music Swan Real. Sound mix by Martín Gonzales. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the teams includes Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Chris Berube, Lasha Madan, Emmett FitzGerald, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, intern Avanti Nambiar, Sofia Klatzker, and me Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at

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