In a time of tight state budgets, when many states find themselves facing the dilemna of how to raise money without raising taxes or cutting services that voters support, lottery has become a popular option. And although it has been around for millennia as a means of making decisions and determining fates by casting lots, the modern lottery in America is very different from the ancient ones that merely distributed prize money. Rather, it has become an enormous industry, with a huge profit potential, despite the fact that the odds of winning are very low.
As a result, it has developed an entire industry of spin-off games, marketing strategies, and research that all aim to keep players coming back for more. But while lotteries have their supporters, they also have critics who point to the dangers of addiction and a regressive effect on low-income people. And a number of studies suggest that the state lottery has a lot in common with gambling casinos and video games.
Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, does not dispute these findings, but he argues that they miss the bigger picture. The real problem, he writes, is that America’s love for lottery gambling has coincided with a decline in financial security. Beginning in the nineteen-sixties and accelerating in the nineteen-eighties, Americans saw their incomes stagnate or decline, health-care costs increase, job security erode, and the national promise that hard work would make them better off than their parents essentially evaporate.
The author’s argument centers on the lottery’s evolution from a traditional raffle to a more sophisticated system that features multiple prizes, instantaneous results, and a greater focus on advertising. It also discusses the history of lotteries, including their role in colonial America as a means of financing both public and private projects.
Historically, lotteries have been a powerful force for financing both public and private projects, including roads, libraries, canals, colleges, and churches. During the American Revolution, lotteries helped finance the war of independence and the early years of the nation’s settlement. And a host of the nation’s founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, grasped the idea that lotteries could be viewed as a painless way to collect revenue for the benefit of the state.
But the current version of the lottery, as Cohen demonstrates, is far more like a casino or a video game than it is a method for allocating public funds. In that sense, it is no more or less corrupt than those businesses. The only difference is that the lottery’s success does not necessarily depend on a state government’s objective fiscal condition; it depends on its ability to persuade voters that the game benefits them. That is a powerful reason why the specter of state bankruptcy has not stopped a lottery from being introduced, even in states that are financially healthy. In fact, it has often made the introduction more likely.