The Official Lottery

Official lottery is a government-run gambling game that, in its earliest forms, was a vehicle for raising money for everything from civil defense to the construction of churches. Early America was short on revenue and long on need for public works—but the country had developed a moral aversion to taxation that made lotteries an appealing alternative.

State lotteries are now responsible for a small fraction of a state’s budget, and, thanks to years of noisy promotion, the general public believes that schools and other vital services are lavishly supported by lottery proceeds. The truth is that lottery profits are a regressive source of revenue—low-income people spend a larger share of their income on tickets than richer citizens—and that the money raised by lotteries ends up draining communities rather than enriching them.

Some experts argue that the lottery’s appeal is especially strong for people living on the margins. “For folks who maybe, you know, have problems in the traditional economy, the lottery offers a chance to get ahead,” says Jonathan Cohen, the author of the new book For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America. “Everyone has the same odds, no matter their socioeconomic status.” And, he adds, winning the lottery is a way to avoid being taxed, which “can be quite a burden on poor families.”