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Cohen’s narrative focuses on the modern state lottery, which he argues began in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of all the revenue to be made from gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with a burgeoning population, rising inflation, the Vietnam War, and soaring welfare costs, states found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.
Legalization advocates, no longer able to sell the lottery as a statewide silver bullet, shifted strategies. Instead of arguing that the proceeds would float a state’s entire budget, they argued that it would cover a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This approach was politically viable because it allowed voters to support gambling while supporting a popular service that they considered nonpartisan.
When one state legalized the lottery, Matheson says, it was common for neighboring states to follow suit pretty quickly. Today, a majority of states offer a state lottery. Moreover, multi-state games like Powerball and Mega Millions have grown in popularity by offering larger jackpots than state lotteries alone could manage.