How the Lottery Funds Public Works and Services

If you’re in a hurry or simply don’t care what numbers you pick, you can mark a box or section on your playslip to indicate that you accept whatever the computer randomly selects for you. This way, you still get the chance to win a prize—though it’s one of the smallest prizes available.

The earliest lotteries, like the casting of lots, were used as party games in ancient Rome—Nero was quite fond of them—or to divine God’s will, as in the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers selling their family’s coats to fund their famine relief efforts. Later, they became a common way to raise money for public works and services such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a well-established public school.

By the late twentieth century, however, as states sought to expand their array of social safety net services without enraging an increasingly anti-tax electorate with steep increases in property taxes and fees, they turned to the lottery. Its modern incarnation, which Cohen chronicles in this book, began in New Hampshire in 1964 and spread rapidly across the Northeast and Rust Belt as a way to fill state coffers without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which would have been unpopular with voters.

Advocates of the lottery point out that it largely diverts lower-income players, minorities, and people with gambling addictions from other forms of gambling or illegal gambling. But they fail to acknowledge that such players do make up a significant portion of lottery participants and ticket buyers—and they also are likely to spend far more on tickets than their richer counterparts, which distorts the amount of money they actually bring into state coffers.

In his book, Cohen argues that the lottery’s rapid expansion in America in the nineteen-sixties coincided with a growing awareness of the tremendous amounts of money to be made in the gambling business and a fiscal crisis for states, where a rising population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War made balancing the budget increasingly difficult. As states searched for ways to raise money that wouldn’t infuriate voters, they settled on a solution rooted in their own historical experiences with gambling: the lottery.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. The six states that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada—have a variety of reasons for their exclusion, including religious beliefs, the fact that they already have legalized gambling, or the perception that the money that lottery players bring in is going to local businesses rather than to the state government. But there is another message that these state lotteries are conveying, as they saturate the landscape with billboard ads offering huge jackpots and a promise of instant wealth: the lottery is fun and it’s okay to gamble, because you’re helping the state. And that’s a message that has real consequences for the most vulnerable among us. In the end, the only thing guaranteed about the lottery is that somebody will lose.