A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random. Lotteries are often used to raise money for state or charity programs. A lottery is also a process by which people are allocated things with limited supply, such as kindergarten admission or a space in a subsidized housing block. The idea of winning a lottery, with its promise of riches beyond the grasp of most, is a compelling one. This desire has led to a great many controversies, including those that have focused on the morality of gambling and the nature of human greed.

Those arguing for state-sponsored lotteries in the nineteenth century were aware of these issues, but they argued that the lottery would allow them to maintain services without raising taxes. This proved to be true; the lottery became a kind of budgetary miracle, writes Cohen, giving politicians a way to make money appear seemingly out of thin air.

In the twenty-first century, the lottery has become a way to get into college and to buy professional sports teams, and it has created dreams of unimaginable wealth for thousands of people. Its popularity correlates with economic fluctuation, and ticket sales rise as incomes decline and unemployment rates increase. It also correlates with demographics; lottery advertising is most prominent in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or black. In this context, it seems inevitable that the lottery will remain a popular way to dream of the good life.