What is an Official Lottery?

An official lottery is a type of gambling where people buy tickets that are drawn for winnings. It’s a practice that is common in many European and Latin American countries as well as regulated in the United States. The word is thought to come from Middle Dutch Lottery or Lottere, or perhaps a calque of Middle French lottery (literally “scattering” or “drawing lots”). The first state lotteries in Europe began in the fifteenth century Burgundy and Flanders with towns attempting to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor.

In the nineteen-sixties, however, as inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and the growing burden of a rapidly expanding population made it harder for states to maintain their array of social safety nets, politicians found themselves confronting an unpleasant choice: raising taxes or cutting services. To most voters, both options were unpalatable.

As a result, state lotteries exploded in popularity, particularly among those states with more generous safety nets that could afford to offer them. As Cohen explains, they were seen by their advocates as budgetary miracles, the only way for states to keep up with rising costs without increasing taxes.

Rather than claiming that the lottery would float an entire state’s budget, advocates started arguing that it would cover a single line item, almost always some form of popular government service—often education or elder care or aid for veterans. This narrower strategy proved more effective, because it allowed proponents to frame the issue in terms of values and not just a matter of numbers.