Lottery, which offers people the chance to win a prize for a small amount of consideration (usually money), has a long history. It was used in the Low Countries, for example, to raise funds to build town fortifications and help the poor, from at least the fifteenth century. Once states took control of the lottery, though, they could authorize games as they wished in order to help specific institutions raise money.
Cohen argues that, during the immediate post-World War II period, lottery profits enabled states to expand their services without incurring especially onerous taxes on middle and working class residents; but as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War rose in the nineteen-sixties, that arrangement began to unravel. It was only a matter of time, he writes, before the lottery’s growth in revenue stalled and state governments faced the choice of raising taxes or cutting services.
In response, lottery commissions shifted their messages. Instead of focusing on the fact that winning the lottery can improve your life, they started arguing that even if you lose, you should feel good because you are doing your civic duty by buying a ticket. They also began to emphasize that the prize amounts were enormous, a message that obscures the regressivity of the game and makes it seem fun and wacky rather than serious gambling. A new generation of players has grown up with these messages, but they are flawed and dangerous.