The Politics of the Official Lottery

When you play a lottery, you are playing a game of chance. But there is more to it than that. For starters, lotteries are, by their very nature, a form of advertising. They dangle the prize of instant riches, which appeals to many people in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. Super-sized jackpots, which drive lottery sales, also earn the games a windfall of free publicity on news sites and newscasts.

The modern government-run lottery began, Cohen argues, in a period of exigency, when the growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with state budget crises. In the nineteen-sixties, with a swelling population and inflation on top of the cost of the Vietnam War, states that provided large social safety nets found themselves in a position where they had to either raise taxes or cut services, both options wildly unpopular.

Enter the lottery. In its first year, lottery revenue in California covered about five percent of the state’s education budget. But it was a drop in the bucket overall for state governments, as lotteries have raised only about $502 billion in their entire history. What lotteries really rely on are two messages primarily: One is that it’s all just a game, and this obscures the regressivity of the whole enterprise. The other is that the money you spend on tickets benefits your state, and here again the numbers just don’t add up. State lottery commissions rely on this message to argue that their product is good for the public.