About the Official Lottery

About official lottery

The history of state lotteries in America is a long, and often rocky one. They have become an integral part of public life, even in places where gambling is illegal, and Americans spend an estimated $100 billion per year on tickets. But despite their popularity, the games are not without controversy: defenders sometimes cast them as a “tax on the stupid,” while critics point out that sales rise when incomes decline and unemployment rates increase, and that advertising for lotteries is concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods.

Cohen argues that the current era of state lotteries started in the nineteen-sixties, when state budget crises collided with growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling. He explains how a few decades of rapid growth had left many states, particularly those that provided a generous social safety net, facing a slew of unfunded obligations. Balancing the books would require either raising taxes or cutting services—which were both deeply unpopular with voters.

As a solution, states began to adopt the lottery as a painless source of revenue. The practice grew so popular that it eventually became a national phenomenon, with players shelling out millions for the chance to win a few million dollars. But that era ultimately ended, Cohen argues, because of concerns about corruption and mismanagement. The result was that in the nineteenth century, all but one state banned lotteries, and the remaining one (the Louisiana State Lottery Company) eventually collapsed under its own weight.