The official lottery is a state-run gambling scheme that distributes prizes based on chance. These games are popular in the United States and offer players a way to win big sums of money through their purchase of tickets that contain numbers or symbols. Many people have an inextricable urge to gamble, so it’s not surprising that the lotteries draw a huge audience. However, the state lotteries have a number of other aims as well. One is to lure poorer Americans with the promise of instant riches. This is accomplished by advertising the size of the jackpot on billboards along highways. In other words, the state lotteries prey on the poor and exploit them for their profits.

Cohen’s narrative of the lottery’s history begins in the nineteen sixties, when growing awareness of how much money there is to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state finances. State governments had built up a broad array of social safety nets, but inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War began to erode their fiscal situation. To keep services running, they had to raise taxes or cut programs, both of which were unpopular with voters.

At the time, legalization advocates marketed the lottery as an alternative to raising taxes. Rather than claiming that the lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they now argued that it could cover a specific line item, typically education, but also public parks or veterans care. This narrower message obscured the regressivity of the lottery and made it easier for voters to support it.