The Official Lottery

Official lottery is a system of gambling whereby state governments issue tickets and award prizes, usually in the form of money. It is a form of taxation, and it has long been controversial. In the United States, there are currently 48 state-run lotteries, each of which offers multiple games. In addition to traditional numbers games, many state lotteries offer instant scratch-off tickets as well as video lottery terminals.

During the seventeenth century, colonial America relied heavily on lotteries to fund public projects. Roads, canals, and churches were often built with funds collected through lotteries, as were universities and military fortifications. Lottery profits also played a large role in bridging financial gaps between rich and poor in the colonies.

While lottery opponents hailed from all political stripes and walks of life, their concerns focused on the ethics of funding public services through gambling and how much governments stood to gain from getting in on the action. In the wake of these objections, legalization advocates shifted their strategy. Instead of touting a lottery’s ability to float all or most of a state budget, they began arguing that it would subsidize one particular line item—often education but sometimes elder care, parks, or aid for veterans.

This approach had its limits, however. As Cohen writes, lottery sales tend to spike when incomes drop and unemployment rises, and state-run lotteries promote their products in communities that are disproportionately low-income or black, a practice that leads those Americans to believe that winning the lottery is an easy way to build wealth.