Official lottery games are state-sanctioned gambling operations used for the purpose of raising revenue. They are regulated by state laws that establish rules for operation, accounting, and distribution of lottery proceeds; the time limits for claiming prizes; and activities considered illegal (such as selling tickets to minors). The majority of states now operate an official lottery.
In his new book, “American Lottery: The Birth of a Modern Fixture,” the journalist Adam Cohen explains how the national mania for winning big prizes in numbers-based gambling came to be at a moment when America’s pre-World War II prosperity began to wane. Inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and a general erosion in Americans’ financial security made it harder to balance state budgets without either hiking taxes or cutting services. Lotteries, Cohen writes, seemed like a “budgetary miracle” that could allow states to continue providing existing services while seemingly creating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue out of thin air.
Many of the states that established lotteries did so in the Northeast and Rust Belt, where their residents were especially tax-averse. These politicians saw the lottery not as a small drop in the bucket of state government’s revenue, but as a source of wealth that would allow them to get rid of taxes entirely.