The Truth About the Official Lottery

In the seventeenth century, lotteries were common in the Low Countries, where towns used them to build town fortifications and to raise money for the poor. They were also a popular way to fund government services, including public parks and aid for veterans. But as the lottery became more of a national phenomenon, critics came to question both its morality and the amount that states stood to gain.

In addition to moral and religious concerns, there were a number of scandals and fears that lottery profits were being stolen by corrupt organizers. But the lottery continued to grow, and in 1964, New Hampshire—a state famously opposed to taxes—approved the first modern government-run lottery. Many other states soon followed suit.

Then, as now, defenders of the lottery argued that it was a simple and streamlined form of taxation. A few dollars per ticket would generate a huge sum, and all state money raised through the lottery could be devoted to a single line item, usually education. This approach made the lottery seem a more acceptable kind of tax, and it worked.

But it’s a false argument, and for the same reasons that breweries or tobacco companies are regulated, so too should the lottery be. It is, as Cohen argues, “a commercialized gambling product that is mathematically stacked against its players.” In fact, it’s not surprising to see lottery sales rise as incomes decline and unemployment and poverty rates climb; this makes sense, since the ads that promote the games are most heavily displayed in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.