An official lottery is a state-sponsored gambling enterprise that offers prizes based on chance. These prize funds may be used to support specific public projects or the general welfare. A number of countries prohibit lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. An example of a lottery is the Powerball, a multi-state game that began in 1964 and is now the largest in the world.
The earliest state-run lotteries were established in the fourteenth century, when they were used to finance town fortifications and provide charity for poor citizens. They later spread to the colonies, where Benjamin Franklin used a lottery in 1748 to raise money for Boston’s Faneuil Hall and John Hancock ran a lottery to help fund the construction of a road in Virginia over a mountain pass.
By the late nineteen-sixties, however, America’s booming prosperity came to an abrupt halt and, in many states with generous social safety nets, it became increasingly difficult to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries seemed like the perfect solution. They would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, thereby relieving politicians of the need to ever consider tax increases—which voters hate.
But while it’s true that the lottery does raise a significant amount of money, Cohen writes, its benefits are far more skewed than people realize. For one thing, the way state lotteries are run creates an egregious distortion: of every dollar of ticket sales, only about 40 percent goes to actual state coffers.