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State lotteries are a big business, with Americans spending an estimated $100 billion on tickets each year. But that wasn’t always the case. In the early days of American history, they were wildly controversial and often illegal, as devout Protestants viewed them as morally unconscionable (even though Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in Charleston, won a lottery in 1800 and used the prize money to buy his freedom).
By the nineteenth century, state legislators, facing budget shortfalls and an unwillingness to raise taxes, began to embrace them. The revenue generated by the lottery was a “budgetary miracle,” as Cohen puts it, allowing politicians to keep public services running without risking a backlash at the polls.
The problem with that strategy is that, as with all gambling, lottery money is not a sustainable source of revenue. And, as the New York Times points out, in most states lottery funding is regressive, meaning that the money comes from those who can least afford it. In the case of education, for example, lottery proceeds have only covered a tiny fraction of overall K-12 spending. Even so, supporters of the game argue that its success proves that voters are willing to forgo tax hikes in order to support schools and other services.