In his book “The Lottery,” the historian Nathan Cohen explores how state governments have used lotteries to raise money for everything from building a town square to funding the nation’s wars. He also argues that lottery proponents have long misjudged their potential effect on American politics. Rather than bolstering progressive arguments for public services and reducing tax rates, they have inadvertently helped fuel America’s antitax revolt of the late twentieth century.
The book begins with the history of the lottery’s early days, describing how it spread across England and into the colonies, often in spite of Protestant prohibitions against gambling. During this time, it was possible for people to win land, houses and other valuable possessions without having to pay a fee. Eventually, however, the lottery became a more formalized arrangement, with participants paying for the chance to receive a prize. These prizes could be anything from cash to goods to even slaves.
After legalization, the lottery became an increasingly popular way for states to raise revenue, with proceeds flowing into the coffers of state governments. As Cohen explains, proponents originally believed that lotteries would be able to fill the pockets of state budgets, allowing them to avoid increasing taxes or cutting services. He then lays out the reality of the state lottery’s impact on public finance, showing that the amounts raised are not enough to float most government programs and are disproportionately spent on low-income people.
In the nineteen-sixties, as population growth, inflation and the cost of war began to strain state budgets, proponents began to hedge their bets. They stopped arguing that a lottery would allow them to avoid raising taxes and focused on selling it as a way to fund an individual line item in a state’s budget—usually education but occasionally elder care, public parks or aid for veterans. This approach helped persuade an otherwise tax-averse public to embrace the lottery, as a way of paying for something they felt needed doing.
Despite the fact that state lottery profits are a tiny fraction of total state revenues, lottery proponents continue to argue that winning the jackpot is a great feeling and that playing is a civic duty. While this message resonates with many, there’s another undercurrent, as evidenced by the fact that lottery players are disproportionately poor, uneducated and nonwhite. In addition, players play on average for only a few months of the year and spend an average of about one percent of their annual income on tickets.
As a result, lottery commissions aren’t above using tactics borrowed from the tobacco and video-game industries. They offer scratch-off tickets that are coded with the idea that playing is fun, and they promote their games with colorful graphics and awe-inspiring statistics, all designed to make winning seem attainable. This strategy obscures the regressive nature of the lottery and enables it to keep drawing millions of Americans into its trap. Moreover, it gives the impression that the poor are just too lazy to work hard and should be rewarded for their failure with big jackpots.