About official lottery
The first recorded lotteries were conducted in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. The practice spread to England, where a lottery called the Great Lottery was established in 1638. Since then, state-sponsored lotteries have grown in popularity. Today, more Americans than ever play them. In 2021, they spent $105 billion on instant scratch-off games and Powerball tickets. But these games are regressive, with lower-income groups spending far more of their budgets on them than higher-income players. And state lottery retailers are disproportionately located in communities that are overwhelmingly poor, Black, or Latino.
In the nineteen-sixties, as states grappled with budget crises brought on by growing populations and inflation, many of them began looking for solutions that would allow them to maintain their services without hiking taxes or cutting benefits. State lotteries seemed like a perfect solution. They could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, allowing legislators to appear to pull revenue out of thin air without provoking voters’ wrath.
But as Cohen writes, there’s much more to state lotteries than meets the eye. They’re a form of taxation, one that’s regressive and preys on the most vulnerable in society. The lottery, he says, makes people believe that buying a ticket is the best way to build wealth and escape poverty. But for many poor people, it’s more of a “scam that deceives them into thinking they’re getting something for nothing.” It isn’t, as defenders sometimes claim, a “tax on stupidity” or that players don’t understand how unlikely they are to win.