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In the first era of lotteries, Cohen writes, states were desperate for income. They needed to maintain public services, but they couldn’t raise taxes because the electorate was intensely anti-tax and would lash back at them in response. Lotteries seemed like “budgetary miracles,” allowing governments to generate revenue seemingly out of nowhere.
Early America, he adds, was also short on moral convictions about the propriety of gambling; it became “a nation defined politically by its aversion to taxation.” Yet even that did not prevent crooked state lotteries, such as the notorious Louisiana State Lottery Company, from flourishing. The LSLC’s corruption prompted Congress to pass laws prohibiting the interstate sale of state lotteries, eventually devasting the Louisiana game and ending the era of state-run lotteries in America.
In recent times, however, state legislatures have once again turned to lotteries to meet their fiscal needs, and a growing number of Americans play them regularly. Even though lottery proceeds are relatively small relative to the size of most states’ budgets, critics continue to object to the idea that a government should be in the business of promoting vice—and a particular kind of addiction—in order to raise money. Yet defenders of the lottery argue that players understand the risks and enjoy the games for what they are, not what they stand to gain.