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In the immediate aftermath of World War II, states faced pressing fiscal challenges. Some lawmakers saw a lottery as an easy way to raise money, without having to consider raising taxes that might anger voters and lead to defeat at the polls. Others thought that people would always gamble, and that the state might as well capture those dollars in a legalized form.

The result has been that lotteries have sprung up in virtually every state, and are now the biggest source of gaming revenue in most. They have also been a major target of criticism, both for the odds that winners face and for their social and administrative costs. But, as Cohen shows, the arguments made for and against their adoption have been remarkably similar.

Lotteries’ advocates tout the specific benefits of the funds they raise for a state, such as public education. But critics point out that, even if the proceeds are earmarked for such purposes, they are still used to reduce the overall appropriations for those programs from the general fund. That means that those programs are not necessarily getting better, and in fact may be getting worse. And, in addition, those who play the lottery tend to be drawn disproportionately from middle- and lower-income neighborhoods. That is a kind of regressive tax.

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