The Story of the Official Lottery

In the United States, lotteries are run by state governments and offer games limited to that jurisdiction’s borders. Some states participate in multi-jurisdictional games, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, which are operated by multiple states and have larger jackpots.

Whether they are used to finance education, public parks, or veterans’ benefits, lottery funds have become a common source of government revenue. But these dollars come at a price. They make it harder to pass much needed tax increases, and they take a disproportionate toll on the people who need them most. That’s the story told by the remarkable new book Official Lottery.

It is a tale of how a small, obscure, and seemingly innocuous game helped shape America’s history, from the founding of the Virginia Company to the rise of Donald Trump. Lotteries spread to the colonies from England, and became a staple of colonial life, even despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. They funded Harvard, Yale, and the Continental Congress, and in early America were tangled up with the slave trade in unexpected ways.

Lottery opponents questioned both the morality of funding public services through gambling and the amount of money that states really stood to gain. They hailed from every part of the political spectrum and drew on everything from biblical injunctions to the economics of John Locke to hammer home their message. Eventually, those inconvenient facts won out, and by the late nineteenth century, all but one state had banned lotteries.