The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a massive industry in the United States, with Americans spending about $100 billion a year on tickets. But it wasn’t always so, and the history of state lotteries has been a rocky one.

The first recorded lottery dates back to the 15th century, when towns in the Low Countries used lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. But Cohen points out that even as these early lotteries were becoming popular, they still faced criticism from devout Protestants who viewed government-sanctioned gambling as morally wrong.

Lottery critics also questioned how much states stood to gain from the new revenue source, which came at a time when they were struggling with booming population growth and inflation. They worried that the states were getting in over their heads and that balancing the budget would require either raising taxes or cutting services, both of which voters disliked.

As lottery popularity grew in the nineteenth century, critics continued to raise objections, arguing that lottery proceeds were inefficient and did little to improve public welfare. They also feared that the popularity of the lottery was empowering the rich, with the poor having to subsidize the wealthy by buying tickets. But Cohen argues that these concerns were exaggerated and that state lotteries actually do raise substantial amounts of money for public projects and services.