The Official Lottery

Lottery, in a broad sense, is a procedure for distributing something—usually money or prizes—among many people by chance. In the form most commonly known in America, the state-run lottery is a game where players pay to buy chances to win a prize determined by a drawing of numbers or symbols that are then matched against a pool of tickets. Cohen’s book focuses on the modern incarnation of this phenomenon, which he dates to the nineteen-sixties, when a nationwide wave of antitax revolt collided with a crisis in state funding that grew out of America’s generous social safety net and a boom in illegal gambling.

By the late-twentieth century, states that had been able to rely on income tax rates and spending cuts to sustain their services were suddenly finding themselves hamstrung by inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. In the wake of this decline, advocates of a lottery started to reshape their arguments. Instead of touting it as a revenue source that would float the entire budget, they began to claim that it would cover a specific line item—most often education but sometimes elder care or public parks.

But even this narrower strategy ends up masking the reality that a lottery is only a tiny drop in the bucket of overall state revenue, by some estimates bringing in only 1 or 2 percent. Moreover, it also gives lottery officials a strong incentive to tell voters that the lottery is fun and harmless. But that’s a misleading message, especially for people who live in poverty or face discrimination in the formal economy.