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Across the United States, state lotteries are thriving, with Americans spending about $100 billion each year on tickets. But it wasn’t always this way, and the history of these gambling games has a complicated relationship to state politics.
The first lottery-type games were played in the Low Countries in the 15th century as a means of raising funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. They also appear to have been a popular pastime at dinner parties, where guests were invited to purchase tickets for the chance to win prizes such as fancy tableware.
By the nineteen-sixties, writes Cohen, growing awareness of all that money could be made in the gambling industry came together with a crisis in state budgets. Thanks to booming populations and rising inflation, paying for a social safety net and basic infrastructure was becoming increasingly difficult. States needed new revenue, but hiking taxes was an unpopular option with voters. Lotteries seemed like a perfect solution.
Initially, critics from all sides of the political spectrum condemned state-run lotteries. Among the most vociferous opponents were devout Protestants, who saw them as morally irresponsible and a door and window to more serious sins. But despite the naysayers, state-sanctioned gambling quickly became an indispensable tool for public finance, helping to build everything from roads and canals to Harvard, Yale and even the Continental Congress.