The live baccarat is the most popular form of gambling in the United States. It draws participants with its promise of a huge prize—often a very large one. The games are illegal in most other countries. But in the United States, state governments sponsor them to raise money for a variety of purposes, from public education to elder care and to help veterans. The result is that the government has become a major force in popular gambling.
In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the enormous sums to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As the post-World War II prosperity crumbled under the weight of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, it became harder for states to float their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.
Lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the lottery as a magic bullet that would float all of a state’s budgetary needs, settled for promoting it as a way to fund a particular line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan like education or veterans’ affairs. These campaigns were wildly effective and, at the same time, fundamentally misleading.
While lottery revenues account for a small percentage of the total state budget, lawmakers in most U.S. states have decided that they should be in the business of promoting gambling. As Cohen explains, that’s meant sending the message that lottery winners, especially poor people, will eventually gain wealth through chance. But the truth is that lottery players are continuously paying into a system that, mathematically speaking, is stacked against them.