The Rise of the Lottery As a Public-Service Fundraiser

The casting of lots to decide fates and distribute property has a long history-it’s attested to in the Bible, for example, and used by Roman emperors to give away properties and slaves. But the lottery, in which people purchase tickets to win a prize money pool, is much more recent and has broad appeal, particularly as a public-service fundraiser. Lotteries have a unique place in modern culture because, unlike other forms of gambling, they are legal and free. As a result, their popularity has soared in the twenty-first century, and they now provide a substantial share of state revenue.

Cohen’s book takes an approach that is more historical and sociological than financial, examining the rise of the lottery in America as it collided with a crisis in state funding. He writes that in the nineteen-sixties, as population growth and inflation accelerated and the cost of wars escalated, Americans came to see their dreams of wealth as increasingly distant and their economic security as frayed. The middle class lost its grip on real incomes, the safety net of health care and welfare weakened, and jobs became more precarious and wages less secure. As a result, state governments could not maintain their existing levels of service without increasing taxes or cutting services, which was unpopular with voters.

In response, New Hampshire approved the first state-run lottery in 1964, and thirteen states followed in as few years, most in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. New advocates argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well pocket the profits. This argument was flawed, but it provided moral cover for those who supported the lottery. It also helped to obscure the fact that most of the lottery’s beneficiaries are white and upper-class, while poorer communities have been disproportionately excluded from participation.

Generally, when a person wins the lottery, it is because they are lucky. While some people have quote-unquote “systems” for choosing their numbers and stores, most people enter the lottery in a clear-eyed manner. They know the odds are long, but they think that by buying a ticket they have a chance to change their lives for the better.

Some critics of the lottery focus on problems that are not related to its operations, such as compulsive gambling and a regressive impact on lower-income communities. Others have a more practical concern: that lottery proceeds are being diverted from other needs, such as public schools and highways. Despite these criticisms, the lottery remains popular with both the public and state officials. This is because, as Cohen shows, the lottery is a good way to raise money for a variety of important purposes and provides a valuable source of revenue. It can help to alleviate a number of state budgetary pressures and is an alternative to raising taxes. It can also be an effective tool for fighting social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty. It can even save the lives of young people who would otherwise die because they cannot afford life-saving treatment.