The official lottery, like most state lotteries, generates money to benefit education, health, social services and other public works. It is a public gambling game that is not the same as other forms of commercial gaming, and it is regulated by state legislatures. In New York, for example, legislators have recently been grappling with how to maximize public safety while protecting lottery winners from harassment by financial advisers and other solicitors.

As Cohen explains, the modern state lottery began in the immediate post-World War II period, as states were facing budget crises that could not be addressed without raising taxes or cutting services. Many voters resented both options, and politicians were eager to find a way out. The lottery seemed a perfect solution, as it would bring in funds from the bottom of the economy and allow them to maintain existing services without hurting working-class and middle-class voters.

But critics worried about both the ethics of funding state services through gambling and how much states actually stood to gain from it. These critics came from across the political spectrum and from all walks of life, but they were especially vocal among devout Protestants, who viewed government-sanctioned gambling as morally unconscionable. And in fact, state-run lotteries rarely made up much of a state’s total revenue, as other forms of gambling (including bingo) took in more. In some cases, they even generated less than a quarter of their total revenue.