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The Official Lottery

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The lottery is a government-sanctioned form of gambling, and it’s also the source of most state revenue. It’s a subject of intense debate, with critics on both sides of the political spectrum arguing that it promotes addiction, distorts statistics and misdirects tax money from other worthy purposes. But even if these arguments are wrong, they miss the fact that the lottery is a tool of state policy. It is a mechanism of the American dream, says Jonathan Cohen, author of “For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America.” It’s a way for poor people to get ahead.

Throughout history, lotteries have been an important source of funds for everything from town fortifications to building churches. By the sixteenth century, they had spread from Europe to England, where Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the first national lottery in 1567 with the aim of bolstering the nation’s defense and charity. Tickets were ten shillings each, which was a lot of money for the average worker. But for many, the chance to win a fortune was worth the risk.

By the nineteen-sixties, however, growing awareness of the huge profits to be made by promoting lotteries collided with a crisis in state funding. As the population grew and inflation rose, balancing state budgets became increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were politically untenable. The lottery seemed like a miracle solution, allowing legislators to raise money seemingly out of thin air.

Lottery opponents argued that gambling was morally wrong, and state-sanctioned lotteries were an especially egregious example of this. But, Cohen writes, the ferocity of these arguments was overshadowed by state governments’ hunger for gambling dollars. They started to band together with other states for multistate lotteries, creating a nationwide network of games that now accounts for almost 90 per cent of all ticket sales and jackpot prizes.

State lotteries, Cohen argues, are now a major cause of inequality. They’re a regressive form of taxation—meaning that low-income Americans spend a larger proportion of their incomes on tickets than do wealthy people. And because these lottery products are marketed heavily in poor neighborhoods, they encourage vulnerable people to believe that winning the lottery is a sure-fire way to get ahead. In the end, these communities become collateral damage in the race to grab a piece of the American dream. As a result, Black and Latino families are more likely to lose than white ones. To make matters worse, lottery revenues are being diverted away from local schools and toward affluent colleges and neighborhoods that don’t need the money as much as their neighbors do. The regressive nature of state lotteries is a growing problem that should concern everyone.

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