Official lottery is a form of gambling in which tickets are sold for chances to win prizes or cash jackpots. Lotteries are a popular way to raise money for public services. The most common public service lottery funding is education, followed by veterans’ benefits and elder care. Some states also fund public parks and aid for the homeless through lottery proceeds. Despite their popularity, public service lotteries are controversial. Many people argue that they violate the right to privacy by selling personal information about lottery winners, and others feel that state-run lotteries prey on the poor.

In the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With a growing population and increasing costs for things like the Vietnam War, inflation, and welfare benefits, it became impossible for some states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were highly unpopular with voters. Lottery advocates saw the solution. They began to sell the idea that a statewide lottery could float a single line item, invariably one that was popular and nonpartisan—most often education, but sometimes elder care or public parks.

Moreover, they started to argue that gambling was inevitable anyway, so the state might as well capture some of the profits. This argument was especially appealing to white voters, Cohen writes. It dispensed with longstanding ethical objections to government-sponsored gambling and gave moral cover to those who supported it for other reasons, including the belief that the lottery would attract Black numbers players, thus easing friction between police officers and residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where games had been used as a reason—sometimes legitimate, often not—to interrogate and arrest them.