Three Things Everyone Should Know About the Official Lottery

Lotteries are booming, with Americans spending an estimated $100 billion each year on tickets. But they have a long and occasionally rocky history, both as public games of chance and private gambling enterprises. This article, adapted from a recent book by historian Jesse Cohen, offers three things everyone should know about the official lottery.

The official lottery is a state-operated game of chance in which players purchase a ticket for the chance to win a prize ranging from a small cash sum to a grand prize, such as a new car or a house. The proceeds are used for public purposes. In the United States, there are 48 jurisdictions that run a state lottery, and the two biggest games—Mega Millions and Powerball—are operated by consortiums of state lotteries.

But critics have questioned the ethics of funding government services through gambling and the amount of money that lottery games really raise for state coffers, which may be far less than advertised. Many of the early opponents were devout Protestants who argued that the lottery was un-Christian and a means for the rich to cheat the poor. (By the 1970s, bingo games at Catholic high schools in Ohio raised more than state lotteries.)

Today’s lottery marketers rely on the message that playing the lottery is a civic duty, not unlike buying a drink at Starbucks. That’s a hard sell to voters, who get mad when politicians want to raise taxes to pay for services that lottery funds don’t cover.