The Official Lottery

In 1967 the official lottery was made legal in Canada through a special law, included in an omnibus bill that was designed to bring up-to-date a number of obsolete laws. Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal Minister of Justice, was responsible for the bill. The law was ostensibly introduced to make amends for some outdated gambling statutes but it also allowed state governments to legalize their own lotteries, making the games a legitimate alternative to taxing and spending cuts.

But as the lottery became popular and jackpots grew to increasingly impressive amounts, opponents began to question the ethics of funding public services through gambling. Critics, he writes, hailed from both sides of the political spectrum and from all walks of life. Some of the most vociferous were poor and working class residents, who had long been dependent on government social welfare programs.

In the nineteen-sixties, state budgets faced enormous pressures, including growing population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War. Balancing a state’s books meant raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were unpopular with voters. For politicians facing this dilemma, the lottery appeared to be a “budgetary miracle”—a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars without raising taxes or hurting popular services.

Lottery advocates marketed the games by focusing on education, the largest beneficiary of lottery proceeds, and by arguing that a vote for the lottery was a vote for better schools. The strategy worked. As Cohen points out, lottery sales are responsive to economic fluctuations; they increase when incomes decline or unemployment rises, and they tend to be more heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.