The Official Lottery

The official lottery is run by state governments and primarily generates funds for education. Many state lotteries also offer other games, such as instant tickets (also known as scratch-offs), keno, video lottery terminals, and a variety of digit game options like numbers games or a five-digit game.

In the early American era, Cohen explains, lotteries were a popular way for states to raise money without raising taxes. This was partly due to exigency — early America was short on revenue and long on needs for things like civil defense, the construction of churches, or even public schools. John Hancock ran a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington used one to raise money for a road over Virginia’s Mountain Pass.

But in the end, that initial era of lotteries started to fade away, in part because of moral concerns. The 1800s saw Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in Charleston, South Carolina, win a local lottery and use the prize money to purchase his freedom. The problem was that lottery organizers could easily run corrupt games, and this led to a widespread distrust of gambling.

Lotteries are also regressive — they tend to hit low-income people hardest. And the message of lottery advertising is that it’s just a fun little game, which obscures the fact that for most players it’s not a very safe or smart thing to do. In addition, state lotteries are a very inefficient way to raise money for states, because of their high administrative costs and low revenue.