Official lottery is a type of gambling wherein participants pay for a chance to win a prize. It is also a form of promotion in which property, work, or money is given away by chance. Examples of such lotteries include raffles and commercial promotions wherein property is given away in exchange for a fee or purchase. This sort of promotion is a central feature of the modern state lottery, which has become the most popular and profitable form of public gambling in the United States, raising more than $34 billion in revenue each year.

Cohen writes that the modern incarnation of state lotteries emerged in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the enormous profits to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state budgets. Many states, especially those with generous social safety nets, found themselves in financial trouble. They could not raise taxes without angering their voters, and cutting services was a politically risky proposition. Lotteries seemed to offer a way to raise money while remaining free from the unpopularity of taxation.

When state lottery officials began pushing legalization, they marketed it as a way to fund a single line item of government business, invariably some kind of service that would appeal to an anti-tax voter, like education, elder care, or public parks. It was a much narrower pitch than the one that had once been pushed for gambling overall, and it made legalization seem like a no-brainer.