Official Lottery is a fascinating study of how the lottery—the most popular form of gambling in the US—reshapes our culture. In the nineteen sixties, when America’s prosperity was flagging and state budgets were strained under pressure from soaring inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, lottery revenues became an increasingly important source of income for many states. But, as Cohen argues, it’s important to look at how that money is collected and what it actually buys: In the end, lottery revenue ends up being a drop in the bucket for actual state budgets; it covers only about 1 to 2 percent of total state revenue.
What’s more, the lottery has always been a bit of a con trick—a means of raising money that is, by design, inefficiently collected and often comes with a hidden cost. As far back as the Roman empire (Nero was a big fan) and as early as the Bible (which features the casting of lots for everything from choosing kings to determining the fate of Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion), lottery games were used as a way to distribute property or money, usually to those who didn’t qualify for a regular government handout.
In modern times, as states began to feel the pinch of aging populations and rising costs, they began to push lotteries aggressively, even though most citizens opposed them. Some advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well profit from it. That argument disregarded ethical objections, but it gave cover to others who approved of lotteries for more ignoble reasons. For example, Cohen writes, a number of white voters supported the lottery to help pay for services that they didn’t want to fund themselves, like better schools in urban areas where black numbers players lived.
But the underlying problem with this logic is that it suggests that gambling is just a personal choice, and that the money spent on tickets is not really a tax. In reality, however, lottery sales are heavily influenced by economic trends, and they tend to increase as unemployment rises and poverty rates rise. They also tend to be promoted in communities that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.
The real lesson of the lottery, Cohen argues, is that we live in a society that’s constantly on the lookout for ways to replace taxes with private expenditures. Whether or not those expenditures are worth it is ultimately up to each of us to decide. *By downloading the PA Lottery App, you agree to receive up to two automated text messages at the mobile number provided. Msg & data rates may apply. You may unsubscribe at any time.