The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a state-sponsored competition in which players buy tickets and win prizes by matching numbered numbers drawn at random. A percentage of the proceeds is used to cover costs and the rest goes as profit or prize money. The term may also be applied to other kinds of governmental arrangements that award prizes by chance, such as a lottery for apartments in a subsidized housing complex or kindergarten placements at a public school.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery arose in America in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made by gambling collided with a state funding crisis. As the number of children increased and the Vietnam War drained national resources, it became harder and harder for states to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both options unpopular with voters.

Amid these tensions, the popularity of lotteries grew, especially in the United States. It helped that, as the nation became more diverse, Americans developed a strong antipathy to taxation. In addition, the founding fathers were big gamblers, and Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to help fund his militia for defense against marauding French forces in Boston.

But there are also moral arguments against lotteries. One is that they are a form of regressive taxation, in which the wealthy pay more per dollar of taxes than the poor. Another is that the lottery preys on the illusory hopes of poor and working-class people, who spend proportionally more of their income on tickets.