The official lottery is a gambling game with an aura of legitimacy. It has rules and procedures, of course—but more importantly it combines fantastic initial odds with this meritocratic belief that we’re all going to get rich someday. As a result, it’s more popular than ever, even as it becomes less likely that anyone will actually win the jackpot.
Cohen explains that America has long been defined politically by its aversion to taxation, which made state lotteries an attractive alternative for raising money for everything from civil defense to churches to schools. But a funny thing happened in the nineteen-sixties, as rising inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War weighed on the economy and states. It became more difficult for politicians to maintain services without hiking taxes or cutting programs, and voters were turning away from both options in droves.
State lotteries became “budgetary miracles” that allowed officials to appear to raise hundreds of millions of dollars without ever touching the tax code or putting the burden on voters. This was especially true in New Hampshire, which embraced the first state-run modern lottery in 1964.
Once one state adopted a lottery, it was pretty common for bordering states to follow suit within a few years. That’s how the multi-state Powerball and Mega Millions games came into being. Then, with the rise of the Internet and mobile phones, it was easy for gamblers to take their tickets and winning numbers with them wherever they went, which led to the proliferation of instant-play games like scratch-offs.