The Official Lottery

Official lottery is a public game in which numbers are drawn for prizes, typically money. It has a long history, dating back to the 15th century in the Low Countries when public lotteries were established as a way to raise funds for town fortifications and help poor people. Today, 45 states plus Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands operate a lottery, and each offers instant win and drawing games that are unique to its jurisdiction. The New York State Lottery was one of the first, and continues to use the proceeds to fund education.

Despite early American Puritan beliefs that gambling was “a dishonor to God,” as well as an affront to virtue, the lottery grew into a national institution. It raised huge sums for everything from civil defense to the construction of churches. Lottery supporters argued that it was a better alternative to taxes. (Indeed, as Cohen writes, “by the late twentieth century, Americans had become so averse to taxation that lottery sales increased even while public spending fell.”)

State lotteries are regressive: they draw more money from lower-income communities, which are disproportionately Black and Latino, and lead those Americans to believe that winning the lottery is an easy route to wealth. Moreover, research shows that people spend more money on scratch-off tickets, which are often marketed in neighborhoods where poverty rates and unemployment are high. As a result, critics argue that the lottery preys on the stupid.