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In the nineteen-sixties, a decade that saw America’s prosperity turn into a state budget crisis, state legislatures were looking for ways to raise money without triggering an antitax revolt. One solution they seized on was the lottery, which by then had already become widely practiced in England and in some of its American colonies. Originally, says Cohen, lotteries were a painless form of taxation, allowing citizens to purchase tickets at lower prices than those of taxable goods and services.

But critics, hailing from all political parties and economic classes, argued that government-sponsored gambling was a morally unconscionable method of funding public services. These critics, whose voices rang loudest among devout Protestants, were right, argues Cohen. But they overlooked the fact that a lottery’s profits are often used to fund projects that benefit a wider community, such as a town library, an opera house, or a football stadium.

They also overlooked the fact that, because lotteries are often marketed and sold in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, low-income Americans end up spending more of their money on scratch-off tickets and instant games than they would on higher-prize drawings such as Powerball. This regressive effect is not unique to lotteries; it’s a problem that all forms of gambling create. But it is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike casinos and racetracks, lotteries are sanctioned by the governments that run them.