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In the seventeenth century, lotteries played a significant role in financing public works in England and its colonies, including roads, libraries, canals, colleges, and churches. The lottery even helped finance the colonization of America itself, despite religious proscriptions against gambling (in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, dice and playing cards were forbidden). But in the nineteenth century, as states began to run into budgetary crises due to booming populations and inflation, they searched for solutions that wouldn’t inflame an antitax electorate.

That’s when state lotteries really took off. As Cohen explains, they were a “perfect solution” to a fiscal crisis that “had nothing to do with gambling but everything to do with growing income inequality.” As a result of a combination of factors—including falling wages, rising unemployment, and the cost of wars—lottery revenues increased during this time and the number of states offering them rose rapidly. The popularity of the lottery also reflects the ways in which people respond to economic fluctuations, as ticket sales increase when incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates spike. In addition, as with most commercial products, advertising drives sales, and so lottery promotions are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or Black.