Official lottery is a government-sanctioned form of gambling. It’s what people think of when they hear “the state runs the lottery.” Unlike casinos, sports books, horse tracks and financial markets, however, which are open to anyone who wishes to gamble, state lotteries promote their games as an altruistic way to help children or to relieve the poor. As the most popular form of gambling in the United States, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets every year, lottery proponents argue that its revenue is a significant contribution to state budgets. Yet, as the author of this piece argues, this claim is deeply flawed.

Cohen traces the origins of official lotteries back to the fourteenth century, when towns in the Low Countries began using them to raise money for a variety of purposes. Initially, lottery profits were used to build town fortifications and charity for the poor. Eventually, the idea caught on, and in the sixteenth century, England began its first national lottery. Tickets cost ten shillings, a significant sum of money in those days. But the lottery became increasingly popular as a way to fund everything from education to military campaigns.

But, as he shows in his book, the modern incarnation of official lotteries came to prominence in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness about the enormous amounts of money to be made by the gambling business collided with a crisis in state budgeting. Inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War were beginning to erode America’s relative prosperity, and, for many states with generous social safety nets, the only solution was to raise taxes or cut services—both of which would be extremely unpopular among voters.