The Official Lottery

Official lottery is a state-controlled lottery that generates revenue for public purposes, such as education. State laws govern the operation and accounting of lotteries, the distribution of proceeds, time limits for claiming prizes and activities considered illegal. Some states also operate private lotteries for their citizens, which are subject to the same state laws.

In early America, for instance, public lotteries were used as “voluntary taxes,” and the Continental Congress tried to use a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War. The practice spread, and by the nineteenth century, it had become common to finance civic projects through lotteries. Lotteries provided a cheap way to raise money for everything from civil defense and church construction to roads, canals, ferries and even, in Montreal in 1826, the building of a new city hall.

But there were other, deeper reasons for their popularity, according to Jonathan Cohen, the author of For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America. Cohen argues that the lottery represented a mechanism for achieving the American dream, especially for people with limited opportunities in the traditional economy. “The promise of wealth in a society defined politically by its aversion to taxation is an attractive prospect for people whose lives would otherwise be rife with poverty and unemployment,” he writes.

But today, the messages that state-run lotteries promote have shifted. They now rely on two main messages. First, they tell consumers that the money they spend on tickets is good because it goes to the government. That obscures the fact that, in relative terms, the lottery is a very regressive form of gambling. It disproportionately benefits poorer people.