The Public Benefits of Lottery


Lotteries are games of chance in which players pay for tickets, choose numbers (or have machines do it for them), and hope that their numbers match those randomly drawn by a machine. The winnings can be money or goods, and the odds of winning are low. A number of states have established state-wide lotteries, while others participate in multi-state games such as Powerball and Mega Millions. Prizes can range from cash to subsidized housing units and even kindergarten placements.

While lottery games are not new, Cohen argues that they entered a new phase in the late twentieth century as state budget crises accelerated. These budgetary stresses, stemming from soaring population growth and the cost of the Vietnam War, left state governments with no way to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were likely to provoke voter outrage. Instead, state leaders sought to boost the flow of money into government coffers by legalizing gambling and turning its profits into public benefits.

Lottery became a popular revenue generator for many states, with its proceeds helping to build roads, canals, bridges, libraries, churches, colleges, and hospitals. Many of these projects were financed by private corporations, but some were run by state-sponsored associations or private individuals. The first recorded lotteries to offer cash prizes were held in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where towns used them to raise funds for town fortifications and charity.

In colonial America, public lotteries were an important part of funding public works and the military; they also helped establish Princeton, Columbia, King’s College (now Columbia), Harvard, and other American colleges. By the 1740s, lotteries were a regular source of income for state legislatures.

The public’s growing obsession with improbable wealth and the dream of hitting a jackpot coincided, as Cohen points out, with a decline in economic security for working people. Pensions eroded, unemployment and poverty rates increased, and the national promise that children would be better off than their parents ceased to be true. State legislatures saw a lottery as a budgetary miracle, an easy way to make public benefits appear out of thin air without raising taxes.

Lottery defenders have argued that it is a “tax on stupidity,” meaning either that players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or that they enjoy playing the game anyway. But Cohen shows that lottery sales are responsive to fluctuations in the economy; they increase as household incomes drop, unemployment rises, and poverty rates climb. And he shows that, like all commercial products, lottery marketing is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods disproportionately populated by poor and Black people. The result is a multi-billion-dollar industry that may be doing more harm than good. This is a book that should be read by everybody who cares about the future of our democracy. It is both a history of the lottery and an indictment of our culture’s cult of greed. And it is a fascinating read.