The official lottery is a system in which state governments award money prizes based on numbers drawn in a random drawing. The first modern government-run lotteries began in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, and were a response to the need for cities to raise funds to fortify their defenses and help the poor. State-sanctioned gambling was also popular among enslaved people, who used winnings to buy freedom. In the early 1800s, however, social, moral, and religious sensibilities turned against state-sponsored gambling of all kinds, and a wave of anti-lottery activism swept across America.
By the mid-1960s, all states except for New York and Delaware had banned the lottery. In New York, officials had become fed up with corrupt officials stealing lottery proceeds and funneling them to organized crime groups. In the wake of public outrage, New York officials decided to establish an official lottery and give the profits to good causes. The New York lottery was the first successful nationwide lottery, and it set a pattern that other states would follow.
As a result, today state-sanctioned lotteries are a major source of income for many states and localities. They offer a wide range of games, including three-digit and four-digit number games; games such as bingo and keno that are similar to numbers games; instant scratch-off tickets; and a variety of games with larger jackpots. Despite the high stakes, players should understand that their chances of winning are extremely low.
Some lottery opponents, who argued that state-sanctioned gambling violated religious and moral sensibilities, were avowedly anti-tax; others, however, believed that if the public was going to gamble anyway—and especially if they were playing for large jackpots—it made sense for the government to take the profit. This argument, which Cohen describes as “the logic of selling heroin,” gave moral cover to politicians who approved lotteries for other reasons. Lottery advocates argued that the revenue could be used for programs that the state would otherwise be unable to finance, such as improved schools in urban areas, without rousing an anti-tax electorate.
Those who oppose the lottery argue that it is regressive—that lower-income people spend far more of their budgets on lottery tickets than higher-income people do. Moreover, research shows that lottery advertising is often targeted at poor communities, which makes them more likely to believe that a win is within reach. For these reasons, and others, Cohen concludes that lottery programs should not exist in the modern United States. He writes, “Considering the regressive nature of state lotteries, their role in fostering gambling addictions, and their encouragement of antitax populism, they should not be allowed to continue.”