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New York Lottery began in 1967 and has since raised more than 34 billion dollars to aid education. The State’s first slogan was ‘Your Chance of a Lifetime to Help Education’ and that remains the focus of the lottery.
State lottery revenue is a critical source of funding for many public services, including schools, roads and bridges, and police departments. In the mid-twentieth century, however, a combination of demographic and economic pressures made it harder for states to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. In the face of a rising tide of antitax fervor, politicians began looking for ways to raise money other than taxes.
Cohen writes that defenders of the lottery often argue that it’s simply “a tax on stupid people.” The claim is based on the notion that players don’t understand how rare it is to win, or else that they are irrationally optimistic about their own chances of winning. He counters that lottery sales are highly responsive to economic fluctuations; they rise when unemployment rates and poverty rates spike, and when advertising for the game is heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.
Once legalization advocates stopped arguing that a state lottery would float most of a budget, they shifted tactics, claiming instead that it would fund a single line item—often education, but sometimes veterans’ services or public parks—and that voting against the lottery was a vote against that service. This narrower strategy enabled them to sell the idea as a purely fiscal measure that didn’t require state coffers to be raided.