The Official Lottery

The official lottery is the way state governments raise money to pay for public projects. It has a long and sometimes rocky history, and Cohen has written about it in his book “The Lottery.” He says the modern era of state lotteries started around the time of World War II, when states had big needs for revenue but had also created a system where they could expand their array of services without much more onerous taxes on middle class and working class people. By the 1960s, he says, that arrangement began to break down, with the rise of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War making it hard for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

Despite the Puritan moral sensibilities of many early Americans—who considered gambling a sin, he writes—lotteries became a fixture in American life. They were used to fund everything from churches and schools to the Continental Congress’s effort to use a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War. John Hancock ran a lottery to help build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington ran a lottery to try to raise money to build a road over a mountain pass in Virginia.

Nowadays, there’s no national lottery; the states operate their own. But they do band together to offer multi-state games, which increase the jackpots and attract more players. Lottery is still popular, and Cohen says that in a way it’s because the odds aren’t all that bad, and because people go into the game believing they can win.