The Official Lottery Funds Public Services

During America’s early days, lotteries were the country’s favorite way to raise money for everything from civil defense to colleges. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to help fund the founding of Philadelphia, John Hancock’s helped build Faneuil Hall, and George Washington used one to finance a road across a mountain pass. But in the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made by the gambling business collided with a fiscal crisis for many states that provided generous social safety nets and public works programs. Balancing the budget became impossible without raising taxes or cutting services—an unpopular option for most voters.

To solve the problem, Cohen says, legalization advocates began to market the lottery less as a silver bullet and more as a way of financing a specific line item that was popular and nonpartisan—often education, but also elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. The shift was important because, as he writes, “a vote for the lottery wasn’t a vote for gambling; it was a vote for a specific service.”

State lotteries continue to promote themselves this way, even though research shows that lottery sales are regressive—meaning that lower-income people spend a larger percentage of their incomes on tickets than do wealthier Americans. They also tend to be heavily promoted in communities that are disproportionately Black and Latino, suggesting that these families are desperate for a quick fix or simply don’t understand how unlikely it is to win.