The Official Lottery

Official lottery is gambling that has been sanctioned by a government and where a percentage of the profits go to good causes. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries.

The word lottery, Cohen explains, dates to the fourteenth century and probably derives from the Dutch word loten, meaning “a drawing of lots.” Lotteries grew in popularity around the time that America was expanding its social safety net after World War II. By the nineteen-sixties, however, population growth and inflation had brought state budgets to a crisis point. It became impossible for states to maintain their array of services without either raising taxes or cutting services—both options were unpopular with voters.

In this context, the idea of a lottery made perfect sense: it could raise money for everything from town fortifications to public health initiatives. And, as a bonus, it would give poorer citizens a chance to get out of paying taxation.

But there’s a big problem with that. As it turns out, state lotteries aren’t actually a very effective way to raise revenue. The vast majority of the money they generate comes from a small segment of players—those who buy the highest-priced tickets, which are promoted disproportionately in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged by unemployment and poverty rates. This means that a lottery’s primary purpose, in the view of many critics, is to exploit the poor for profit. And as with other forms of commercial exploitation, it exposes those who play to addiction and financial risk.