The Official Lottery

The official lottery is the procedure by which chances are distributed among a group of people, usually by drawing lots. The term “lottery” also refers to the game of chance in which participants purchase tickets and win prizes by matching numbers or symbols on the ticket. Lotteries may also be conducted by private groups or businesses to raise funds for specific purposes, such as building churches, supporting charity, or financing a war.

In early America, Cohen writes, a nation defined politically by its aversion to taxes, lottery schemes emerged as budgetary miracles, allowing state legislatures to make money appear seemingly out of thin air without having to contemplate raising sales or income tax rates. Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth were all financed through lotteries; the Continental Congress attempted to hold one to finance the Revolutionary War; and small, privately organized lotteries proliferated.

By the nineteen-sixties, however, growing awareness of the colossal sums to be made in the gambling business collided with the state’s crisis in revenue. As state populations and inflation soared, a combination of flat or declining real wages, rising property tax assessments, and the cost of running schools forced legislators to look for new sources of cash.

That’s when lottery advocates began to change their strategy. No longer arguing that the lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they began claiming that it could cover just one line item—almost always education, but sometimes other public services, like elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This narrower claim was easier to sell, and it allowed legalization advocates to make the case that a vote against the lottery was a vote against education or veterans or some other worthy cause.