The official lottery is a type of state-sponsored gambling that provides an alternative to raising taxes or cutting public services. According to Cohen, it was the most popular way to raise money in the eighteenth century because early America was short on revenue and long on needs for things like churches, roads, canals, ferries, and colleges. The lottery also grew to be “a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card” for the wealthy, who used the proceeds to avoid paying taxes and support causes they believed in.
In the modern era, states run lotteries independently but sometimes join forces to offer games that span larger geographic regions and carry bigger jackpots. This has allowed for games such as Mega Millions and Powerball to thrive, and have helped reframe the lottery’s image in the minds of Americans.
Cohen’s article is well worth a read and gives us a fascinating history of this under-appreciated state institution. In the nineteen-sixties, as America’s population exploded and inflation rose and states struggled to maintain their social safety nets, the lottery became a budgetary miracle for politicians who could use it to keep government running without resorting to taxes or cutting services, which would anger voters. It’s this narrative of the lottery as a sort of silver bullet for states in crisis that has shaped the way we think about and talk about it today.