One of my earliest memories is of my mother buying a lottery ticket. We’re at a supermarket counter in rural California, she holds a $5 bill between two long fingernails. “Five SuperLotto Quick Picks,” she says to the cashier. He gives her a ticket the color of an orange creamsicle. She folds it into her wallet, between receipts and the bills.
When I was young, my mother was always talking about the “lotto.” Around the kitchen table, she’d tell me and my older brother what she’d do with the millions: buy a large farm with chickens, fly us to Mexico, solar-panel the roof.
One afternoon in first grade my mother surprised me by picking me up early from school. I had never left school early before, and I knew something big must have happened. There was only one possibility in my mind — that we’d won the lottery. I skipped down the linoleum-floored hallway to the office where she was signing the paperwork to take me home. In the car I asked her if it was really true: Had we won? No, my mother said. Dad and I are getting a divorce.
I imagine that my mother probably thought about winning the lottery so much because she was a stay-at-home mom during my early childhood. She’d been thinking about going back to college to get her teaching credential, and she’d need money. Or maybe she played because she sensed the imminence of divorce. At a pool party, a friend had told her that someone he knew had won enough to move to Hawaii. I picture my mother outstretched on a lawn chair, looking over her dark sunglasses, listening. “That’s when I really started playing,” she told me during my last visit home. “That kind of made it real. Like a real possibility.”
Despite the one-in-292-million odds of winning the multi-state Powerball jackpot (you have a greater chance of dying from a falling coconut, which is one in 250 million), Americans spent $71.8 billion on lottery tickets in 2017. The bulk of this revenue was generated by the largest consumers of lottery tickets, who also happen to be the poorest Americans. According to a 2004 study conducted by Cornell University professor Garrick Blalock, the lottery is most aggressively advertised in impoverished communities, particularly minority and rural white neighborhoods. The predation of the lottery on the financially insecure leads to what Blalock calls the desperation hypothesis: those in the direst of financial circumstances turn to the lottery as “a hail-mary strategy.” It is a source of hope for those in despair, for those who dream of escaping their social class.
75 percent of lottery players believe that they will win and 71 percent of players said that if they did win, they would use the money to pay off their debt.
The Cornell study also found that people who made less than $30,000 a year were more likely to play the lottery for money (as opposed to those who play purely for entertainment), meaning that poor lottery players play as a legitimate strategy for financial stability. A 2019 survey conducted by a customer intelligence firm Vision Critical found that 75 percent of lottery players believe that they will win and 71 percent of players said that if they did win, they would use the money to pay off their debt. A 2006 survey found that one in five Americans believe that winning the lottery “represents the most practical way for them to accumulate several hundred thousand dollars.” This number jumps to one in three Americans for those with incomes below $25,000. Lottery players budget to account for lottery tickets in the hope that this investment will offer a reward in the form of savings or debt relief. This, in turn, only makes America’s poorest even poorer.
In 2018, advertising agency David&Goliath rebranded the California SuperLotto Plus with the new slogan: “May The Best Dream Win.” The minute-long TV advertisement, an homage to California and the dreamers it attracts, is layered with an ensemble of quickening violins and postcard shots of California geography. A woman driving a pickup truck with a three-legged dog in the passenger seat pulls into a stretch of farmland designated “Tripod Ranch,” where other three-legged dogs run through verdant grass. (It is assumed that her dream is to have a ranch for three-legged dogs.) “Something brought you here,” James van der Beek’s voice intones over a panorama of the California coastline, “something brought all of us here.” An attractive man, smiling, walks off of a movie set, the Pacific all cerulean. “Where no dream is too big, too small, or too out-there. So go ahead and dream.” A son takes his father, a former serviceman, out on a ride on his military motorcycle. “This is California. And if a dream is going to come true anywhere... it’s going to come true here.” May The Best Dream Win sprawls across the screen, followed by a sunny SuperLotto Plus ticket.
The message behind the commercial is nothing groundbreaking: winning the lottery can make dreams come true. Yet, what SuperLotto Plus set out to do was piggyback off California’s magnetism to amplify its residents’ sense of luck. The California Gold Rush was, in 1848, the catalyst for Western expansion. It offered gold by the pound, sparsely populated land, and for the poor, rapid financial gain. The desire for California’s statehood, a product of Manifest Destiny, was feverish: according to Harvard historian Frederick Merk, the unconquered West was considered, “a new earth for building a new heaven.” From the frontier of possibility and profitability would come salvation. The advertisement, then, deceives its viewers into believing that lottery players reserve a sense of agency granted by California lore: if you dream hard enough and big enough in California, you will win.
As a child, I believed that my mother deserved to win the lottery. Sometimes a Powerball winner would be interviewed by a TV news station about their luck. Their faces, smiling and shiny, would annoy me: They were not my mother.
I liked to imagine what she would look like if she won. I thought about her on the ranch with the chickens, riding on the back of a chestnut-colored horse. I thought about us taking the vacation to Mexico, eating rice and pulled pork off of a cream-colored plate on a hotel balcony. “One day,” she’d say whenever I asked her for something that we couldn’t afford. “When we win the lotto.”
The California lottery functions, of course, as another type of rigged capitalist competition, a game with a vanishingly small chance of reward that fools its players into believing that effort and big aspirations pay off. The California Lottery, in essence, gamifies the American Dream.
The lottery is a narrative of false potential, pacifying the ever more precarious masses by dangling in front of us a better, shinier life.
My mother worked, my mother dreamed, but these alone did not afford her financial stability. The lottery is another of America’s promises for economic mobility that it has no intention of keeping. As Jonathan Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia studying Amerian lotteries, told Bloomberg last year: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that state lotteries started emerging in the 1970s and 1980s when rates of social mobility in the traditional economy stagnated and then declined.”
The lottery is a narrative of false potential, pacifying the ever more precarious masses by dangling in front of us a better, shinier life. Instead of asking how the system is rigged against you, you ask how you can win. My mother, like many lotto players, developed a strategy: she decided that computer-generated QuickPicks were luckier than choosing your own numbers. But in 2016, the multi-state Powerball QuickPick tickets were revealed to be a scam, with machines generating roughly 200 million identical tickets to different players. (I have told her this, though she still buys the QuickPicks.) The ability to choose how the game of the lottery is played — manually selected or computer generated — is a way to deceive the player into believing that they have some agency in their success. The outcome of the state lottery becomes a deflection of responsibility: it directs players’ frustration away from the state for its failures — to provide sufficient welfare, to fund its public school system without relying on those in poverty, to provide a livable minimum wage — and transfigures the state into a potential fairy godmother.
California’s state lottery was established in 1984 to help raise funds for public schools. Because of this, the state can rely less on corporate and income taxes for funding. But why should the poorest residents be responsible for generating this revenue? Several Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential election have pushed for higher corporate and income taxes as a means to fund education, including Elizabeth Warren, who has proposed a wealth tax that would generate more federal funding for public schools. In May, the Oregon Senate passed a multibillion dollar education tax on the state’s wealthiest businesses to supply more revenue for state education. Ideally, this legislation would allow for the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations to provide the revenue generated by the state lottery (around 1% of the public school budget in California) and thus provide the state an opportunity to sever its reliance on the poor to purchase lottery tickets.
The dismantling of state lotteries is not the cornerstone of any of these candidates’ or congresspersons’ platforms. The predation of the lottery is not on the mind of most politicians, particularly because the lottery is a game that individuals opt into playing. Any harm from this is considered solely self-inflicted. Yet, dire economic circumstances drive people to play, which make these individuals first and foremost victims of the political and financial systems working against them. What they choose to do to escape these circumstances does not relieve the lottery, as a financial institution, of responsibility for leading its players to believe that poverty can be escaped by gambling one’s way out.
When I visit my mother in California, we’ll sometimes go to the grocery store together. She’ll ask the cashier for five SuperLotto Quick Picks, and she’ll take them with her long fingernails. She estimates she’s spent $3,000 on lottery tickets in her lifetime. “You can’t win if you don’t play,” she says. But it seems, I tell her, that you can’t win if you do play. The lottery did not ever and will not ever provide her with a ranch, or solar panels, or vacations. It will not afford her a better life. This beacon of false hope can be seen at the top of every California lottery ticket, a sun shining above the chosen numbers. It is golden, radiant, looming. And it is blinding.