The Official Lottery

An official lottery is a form of gambling in which prizes are given away by a drawing. It may be held in a single location or on a large scale, and the prize money is generally divided among a number of smaller prizes.

The first lotteries appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where towns sought to raise money to fund defenses or aid the poor. They were popular throughout Europe, but France and Italy had some of the world’s most extensive lotteries.

Early advocates of the lottery promised that it would fill state coffers without increasing taxes. They argued that the money would be used to fund popular and nonpartisan services, such as schools. But this fantasy quickly proved false. In New Jersey, for example, lottery revenues covered less than two per cent of the state’s budget in its first year.

In the nineteen-sixties, as the country’s economy began to slow, states faced growing pressure to find ways to balance their budgets. They had to do so without raising taxes or cutting vital government services, but neither of these options was particularly appealing to voters.

To help solve this problem, the gambling industry, aided by lobbyists and consultants, launched a series of high-profile campaigning efforts. These campaigns, which emphasized the benefits of the lottery to schoolchildren, wildly exaggerated the contribution it would make to state finances.

As Cohen demonstrates, the lottery is a regressive tax that takes a big bite out of the budgets of low-income people. It also encourages gambling addiction, which leads to crime and other public-health problems. And it discourages normal taxation, making it harder to raise revenue for critical services. In the end, lotteries should not exist in the modern United States.