The Official Lottery

Official lottery, also known as a state lottery, is a form of gambling in which the government sells tickets to raise funds for public purposes. It has a long history in the United States, and the federal government regulates lotteries by prohibiting the purchase of lottery tickets through the mail or by phone, and assigning penalties for violators. Most US states operate their own lotteries, and some participate in larger multi-state games such as Mega Millions.

During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as states struggled to maintain public services without increasing taxes, they looked to the lottery for budgetary miracles. As Cohen explains, “Lottery advocates no longer claimed that a statewide lottery would float the whole budget, but rather a single line item, invariably education but sometimes elder care or parks or aid to veterans.” This strategy appealed to voters, who were told that a vote for the lottery was a vote for a particular public service.

The lottery has always preyed on the poor, Bernal says, because “it offers a dream of unimaginable wealth that is mathematically stacked against them.” As income inequality widens, jobs disappear, health-care costs increase, and pensions erode, many Americans find it increasingly difficult to fulfill the nation’s long-held promise that if you work hard and play the lottery, someday you will become wealthy enough to live comfortably and help your family.

Lottery sales rise when unemployment grows, poverty rates increase, and people feel depressed about their financial prospects. It is also true that lotteries are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.