The Official Lottery

The official lottery, which entails paying a consideration (usually money or property) for the chance to win a prize through a random procedure, is a form of gambling in which the probability of winning is much greater than in other forms of gambling. Modern lotteries include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters. Traditionally, lottery prizes have been money or goods, but they also can be services, such as a trip to the opera.

During the nineteen-sixties, as states grappled with a growing population and soaring inflation, the idea of raising revenue through the lottery was a tempting one. Lottery advocates claimed that the games would provide a steady stream of revenue, allowing legislators to keep funding essential services without hiking taxes or cutting them.

But critics questioned the morality of subsidizing government through gambling and how much money states really stood to gain from lotteries. Those critics hailed from both sides of the political spectrum and all walks of life.

As it turns out, the promise of state-run lotteries to fund education and public safety largely has been a smokescreen for the real purpose of the games, Cohen writes. The jackpots have grown to such apparently newsworthy levels because they boost sales and generate free publicity. Retailers who sell tickets in low-income neighborhoods have become the “collateral damage” of this process, she writes.