The modern lottery is a massively popular form of gambling in which people purchase chances at winning money or prizes. In 2021, Americans spent upward of $100 billion on the games. The lotteries are promoted by state governments as a way to raise revenue, and they do indeed bring in huge sums—though how meaningful that money is in broader state budgets, and whether it is worth the trade-offs to those who lose money, is up for debate.
In this article, Cohen explores the evolution of the official lottery as a tool of state power. He focuses on the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. With a population swelling, inflation rising, and the cost of the Vietnam War increasing, states found themselves straining under their existing budgets. Balancing the books became more and more difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters. For many politicians, lotteries looked like the answer.
Lottery opponents hailed from all walks of life, but they shared a basic tenet: government-sanctioned lotteries were morally wrong. In the early days of American lotteries, corrupt officials ran shady operations that bilked the public out of millions of dollars. Some of these operations were national in scope, promoting a game called the Louisiana State Lottery Company, which operated across multiple states.
Cohen writes that despite the moral outrage of these critics, public opinion eventually turned in favor of the lottery. With the state’s revenue problem solved, legislators could promote it as a way to maintain essential services and not face punishment at the polls. They could also tout it as a kind of budgetary miracle, bringing in millions of dollars seemingly out of nowhere.
But a deeper truth was that the lottery was inherently regressive, and the money it raised for states was a drop in the bucket. It accounted for only about 2 percent of total state revenue, he says. And that percentage skews even worse for poorer states.
Cohen says that to understand why the lottery is so regressive, you have to look at its roots in American culture and history. Lotteries aren’t just a form of gambling—they’re a “mechanism of the American dream.” Especially during times of economic hardship, when people feel that they have no chance to get ahead, the lottery offers them a chance to win big and change their lives. In the end, he says, poor people pay into this system, even though they have incredibly long odds of winning. And they do so while believing that they’re doing something good for their communities and states. Despite the odds, many believe they’ll eventually break free from their circumstances. Then, they’ll be able to help those less fortunate than themselves. Lottery players are naive, but they’re not stupid. In fact, they’re probably more naive than their critics.