The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a type of gambling in which chances are sold for money or other prizes. It was a popular way of raising funds for everything from public works to the construction of churches in early America, and the Continental Congress even tried using a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War. But despite the popularity of lotteries, they were also widely denounced on moral religious grounds, for corruption and regressive effects, and, until recently, were illegal in most states.

In the late twentieth century, however, as many states found themselves unable to raise needed taxes, lotteries began gaining in popularity again, especially in the Northeast and Rust Belt, where the state lottery was first launched in 1964. The appeal of lotteries was in part driven by exigency; as Cohen explains, they offered a means for raising money without generating the ire of anti-tax voters.

During this era, many lotteries were run by private companies that operated them on a quasi-governmental basis, and it was common for people to buy tickets in multiple states in order to increase their chances of winning the prize. By the 1800s, most states had banned them on moral religious grounds, for corruption and alleged regressive effects (though devout Protestants, who were usually in the majority, tended to be pro-lottery), and, in some cases, because they were feared to attract blacks and Catholics.

In the 1970s, as state budget crises deepened, lottery advocates mounted high-profile campaigns promoting them as educational boons, and today lottery proceeds account for, on average, one per cent of state revenue. But these high-profile campaigns were largely misleading, as the evidence shows, and they wildly overstated how much lottery money actually made a difference in education funding.