The Rise of the Official Lottery

An official lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase chances for prizes, usually money or goods. The winners are chosen by drawing numbers or symbols. In the United States, state lotteries have been a popular source of revenue, but they have also been associated with corruption and mismanagement. Many state governments have banned the lottery, but some remain open, and others have legalized it for specific purposes. A lottery may be operated by a government agency or by private business.

The first recorded public lotteries were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. Later, lotteries were used for military conscription and commercial promotions. The modern lottery includes games like the Powerball and Mega Millions, which draw winning numbers from a large pool of tickets purchased by a wide range of people. The lottery is also used to assign rooms at hotels and in housing complexes, and to select jurors.

Cohen traces the rise of official lotteries in the United States, which began to become widely popular in the nineteen-sixties as state budgets came under increasing strain. With a booming population, rising inflation, and the costs of the Vietnam War, it became increasingly difficult for some states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

Advocates of the lottery shifted tactics, no longer arguing that it would float the entire state budget but that it could pay for a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. These campaigns were highly effective, but they also inflated the impact of lottery money on state finances.

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