In a nation where gambling is ubiquitous, from casinos and racetracks to online financial markets, it may be hard to imagine how state lotteries came to represent such a major source of addiction. In his new book, Cohen argues that the answer lies in a mix of political expediency and moral disgust. The modern lottery emerged in the nineteen-sixties, when state budget crises triggered by growing population and inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War left legislators seeking ways to raise revenue without enraging their anti-tax electorates. Lotteries were attractive because they offered states a way to appear to make money magically out of thin air, and the public seemed to buy into it.
But as the era of the official lottery came to an end, America began to feel differently about gambling. The aversion to gambling in general and the lottery in particular grew out of a combination of religious and moral distaste and concerns about corruption, which could be exploited to sell tickets and not award prizes. The abuses of lottery organizers in the 1800s—including Denmark Vesey’s role in a failed slave revolt—helped to turn America against its government-run games.
But even though most Americans understand that their chances of winning are slim, the national lottery continues to attract players from lower income neighborhoods and incense some communities. Studies show that lower-income Americans spend more of their budgets on instant scratch-off games than do white or middle-class Americans, leading critics to charge that the game transfers wealth from poor communities to the wealthy.