The Official Lottery

The lottery is the game of chance, and it has been around for a long time. The first recorded signs of it are keno slips dating from the Chinese Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. Historically, lotteries have been used to fund all sorts of things including roads, canals, and even the construction of New York City hall. The modern incarnation of the lottery is run by state governments, and it’s a business that has grown tremendously.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern era of the official lottery started when a growing awareness about all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. By the nineteen-sixties, the prosperity of America’s postwar years, which had allowed states to expand their social safety nets, began to wane. And balancing state budgets became more difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which would have been unpopular with voters.

Lottery advertising campaigns, as Cohen argues, were highly effective, but also fundamentally misleading. For one thing, they wildly inflated the amount of state revenue that the lottery could generate. In California, for example, a high-profile campaign touted that lottery funds would provide five per cent of all education spending in the state’s first year of operation—a figure that has since remained roughly the same.

To counter this, advocates of legalization started shifting their message away from the claim that a state lottery could float most of its budget, and toward the idea that the lottery was a good way to support a specific government service—usually education but sometimes elder care, or public parks, or aid to veterans. This approach had the advantage of making it easy for anyone to argue that supporting a lottery meant you weren’t voting against veterans or education.