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During the lottery’s early years, opponents questioned both the ethics of funding public services through gambling and the amount that states actually stood to gain. These critics hailed from both sides of the political aisle and all walks of life. Among them were devout Protestants, who viewed government-sanctioned lotteries as morally unconscionable. (By contrast, Catholics reliably played the lottery in huge numbers once it was legalized and often flocked to other forms of gambling, such as bingo games hosted by their high schools.)

When state-run lotteries began to take hold, advocates rejiggered their marketing strategy. Rather than claiming that lottery revenue would float most of a state’s budget, they framed it as a supplement for a single line item, invariably some popular and nonpartisan public service, such as education or elder care or help for veterans. This was more palatable to anti-tax voters, who could be convinced that a vote in favor of the lottery wasn’t a vote against education.

In the late nineteen-eighties, as the nation’s tax revolt deepened, lottery proponents adopted an even more adroit approach. They began promoting the idea that lottery money would cover, in its first year, five per cent of California’s school-budget spending. This figure was wildly exaggerated but nonetheless served its purpose: It made it possible to campaign for the lottery by suggesting that a vote against it would be a vote against education.