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Throughout the twentieth century, states grew increasingly dependent on lotteries to finance public services, especially in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. Cohen writes that a significant factor was America’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt, in which voters demanded fewer taxes from their governments and elected a new generation of “tax cutters.” Lotteries offered state lawmakers an attractive alternative: they could claim that the money would “float” government budgets without angering their constituents.

Defenders of the lottery argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so it was morally right for the government to take advantage of them. But critics questioned the ethics of government-sponsored gambling, and pointed out that it was unfair for lottery profits to be disproportionately shared with poor and Black communities. As a result, legalization advocates began narrowing the argument, claiming that a lottery would pay for a particular line item—usually education, but also elder care or public parks—while assuring voters that they were not supporting gambling. This strategy made legalization campaigns more palatable, since they no longer threatened the cherished principle of fiscal restraint.