The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a procedure for distributing prizes (often money or property) among people who pay for chances to win. It is often considered to be government-sponsored gambling, and a form of taxation. Lottery games are common in many countries and have been around for centuries. They can take a variety of forms, from the medieval town raffles that rewarded citizens for military service to modern state-run lotteries.

As a gambling business, lotteries thrive on an inextricable human impulse to play the odds. But they also rely on an unsubtle strategy: dangling the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

Cohen traces the modern history of state-sponsored lotteries, starting with an early era that came to a close in the 1800s, when growing awareness about all the money that could be made prompted a crisis in state funding. Suddenly, states found themselves scrambling to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. It was an uphill struggle, especially for states like New York with its powerful anti-tax sentiment.

Lottery advocates began focusing less on the huge sums that could be won and more on what they could do for the public good. They started claiming that lottery funds would cover one line item in the state budget—usually education but sometimes elder care or even aid for veterans. This narrower approach proved more effective, because it allowed legalization campaigns to avoid directly tying a vote for the lottery to gambling. But it wasn’t without its drawbacks: The figures were inflated and the campaigns were misleading.