Official lottery is a game of chance in which tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize, often money, but other prizes can be awarded as well. Lottery proceeds are gathered by governments for the purpose of public service, such as building roads, canals, and ferries or funding education.

The modern incarnation of the lottery grew out of a state-level fiscal crisis in the nineteen-sixties, as government coffers were depleted by the Vietnam War and inflation and voters’ antipathy to raising taxes made it ever more difficult for politicians to balance budgets. With its promise to make revenue appear out of thin air, the lottery was an appealing prospect for politicians. The brash advertising campaigns that accompanied the launch of new lotteries, Cohen writes, wildly inflated their impact on state finances. For example, California’s first lottery initiative was marketed as a boon to schools; but in reality, its revenue contributed less than five per cent of the state’s education budget.

Lottery proponents dismissed longstanding ethical objections, arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so governments might as well get in on the act and pocket some of the profits. But the logic is flawed. Inevitably, lotteries exacerbate income inequality and increase addiction to gambling. And, as with all commercial products, the lottery is promoted disproportionately in neighborhoods that are poorer and more likely to include black or Latino residents. “Poor people are collateral damage to a cause that legislators feel is worthy,” the Howard Center wrote.