The Official Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling that involves selling tickets for a chance to win a prize, which can be cash or goods. It is a popular form of public funding, and is used in many countries around the world. Prizes can be fixed, in which case the organizer is at risk if not enough tickets are sold, or variable, in which case the amount of the prize depends on how many tickets are sold. Historically, prizes have been fixed amounts of money, although in modern lotteries the prize funds can also be a percentage of total receipts.

The official lottery began in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where local towns used it to raise funds for town fortifications and charity for the poor. But it wasn’t until after 1964 that states began to use it to subsidize state government budgets, and in some cases to reduce taxes or other fees.

As Cohen writes, supporters of legalized state lotteries once argued that a centralized gambling game would float most of the state budget, a claim that obscured the fact that it was a very regressive revenue source. But as state budgets grew tighter in the nineteen-sixties, lottery advocates moved away from arguing that the lottery would cover every line item and began to market it specifically to a single government service—usually education or elder care or aid for veterans.

That shift was not only politically expedient, but also made sense from a marketing perspective; as Cohen explains, states in the period before legalized gambling faced an increasingly difficult choice between raising taxes or cutting services to meet their deficits, both options that would anger a large and growing number of voters. As a result, the lottery became the perfect answer.