The official lottery is an important source of funding for public works, schools, and even religious institutions. But, as Cohen writes, America’s moral sensibilities began to turn against the lottery in the 1800s, and corruption eroded its reputation as an efficient way to raise funds.
The New York Lottery was established in 1967; its first slogan was, “Your Chance of a Lifetime to Help Education”. Since that time, it has generated over $34 billion in aid to education revenue.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, public lotteries became common in Europe and the American colonies, providing for a variety of projects from town fortifications to building towns. They also helped fund colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. And they proved to be popular ways to collect “voluntary taxes” without imposing direct taxation, which was often a politically unpopular option in early America.
While critics hailed from all walks of life, the most vocal opponents were devout Protestants who considered government-sponsored gambling unethical and immoral. And for some, the numbers game resembled a commercialized form of slavery that enticed enslaved people to gamble and to pay money for a chance to win something they would never actually own.
But supporters argued that state lotteries offered an alternative to raising taxes or cutting services, two options that were highly unpopular with voters. And, they pointed out, most states didn’t have enough money to finance the projects their residents wanted anyway.
By the nineteen-sixties, as economic conditions deteriorated and the costs of running public programs rose, state governments came to see that they could no longer afford both their social safety net and the lottery. But balancing budgets based on either increasing taxes or decreasing spending meant devastating cuts to social services.
In the wake of this economic crisis, a growing number of states turned to the lottery to raise revenue. The lottery quickly gained popularity, and the jackpots grew to enormous sizes, earning the games enormous publicity. Eventually, the state-based lotteries began to cooperate with one another and create games that crossed state lines, creating a de facto national lottery.
But the popularity of the lottery remained uneven. The lower-income groups in America tend to spend more of their incomes on tickets, and these players are disproportionately Black or Latino. In addition, research has shown that state lotteries aggressively market and advertise their products in low-income neighborhoods, leading these Americans to believe they can buy their way to wealth. These regressive practices exacerbate inequality in America.