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In the sixteenth century, the lottery became a popular way to raise money for public works in Europe. At that time, most public lotteries offered tickets for prizes like fancy dinnerware.
But the lottery was also one of the first ways that states raised money without raising taxes. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, state-run lotteries took off in America, despite fears that they were a “hidden tax.” By 1832, there were 420 public lotteries, according to the Boston Mercantile Journal, which included a scheme established by the Continental Congress to raise funds for the Revolutionary army.
Lottery defenders sometimes call it a “tax on stupidity,” arguing that players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win and that they enjoy the game anyway. But Cohen argues that this narrative obscures the fact that lottery sales are responsive to economic changes, increasing when incomes fall and unemployment rises.
Moreover, he shows how lottery marketing campaigns target low-income communities, luring them into believing the lottery is a quick path to wealth. In reality, he says, lotteries are regressive: they take money from poor and working-class people and give it to rich people, transferring wealth out of those communities.