The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a gambling game in which people purchase chances to win prizes based on the outcome of a draw. A prize may be money or goods, or it can also be services or a free vacation. In some countries, the lottery is a government-sponsored game, while in others it is private. Modern lottery games include lotto, keno, Take5 and bingo. In the United States, there are 48 state-sponsored lotteries and two national games, Powerball and Mega Millions.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery was born when growing awareness of how much money could be made in numbers games collided with a crisis in state funding. During the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and war expenses soared, state governments faced the dilemma of how to maintain their social safety nets without hiking taxes, which would be wildly unpopular with voters. For many politicians, Cohen argues, lotteries appeared to offer “budgetary miracles,” the chance to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues seemingly out of thin air.

But the early era of the American lottery was plagued by corruption and mismanagement. The notorious Louisiana Lottery Company, for example, raked in enormous profits by selling tickets across state lines. These issues led to a wave of state bans, and eventually Congress passed laws prohibiting the interstate sale of tickets, killing off the first incarnation of the American lottery. By the mid-nineteenth century, though, a new version of the lottery had emerged, based on the idea that state governments could profitably use numbers games to raise needed revenue.