A lottery is a form of gambling wherein numbers are drawn at random for prizes. State laws regulate the operation and accounting of the games; how lottery proceeds are distributed; and activities considered illegal (such as selling tickets to minors). Most states have an official lottery, with the profits from this game being used for a variety of purposes including public education.

While the lottery has a long and colorful history, Cohen writes that the modern incarnation of it started in the nineteen-sixties, as state budgets began to suffer due to inflation, population growth, and Vietnam War costs. Politicians sought ways to balance the budget without raising taxes, which tended to be very unpopular with voters. Lotteries looked like the answer.

The first government-run lotteries in America came about after New Hampshire approved one in 1964, and the rest followed suit in the following years. Lottery advocates marketed these ventures as “budgetary miracles,” arguing that they would bring in money that could keep governments running without arousing the ire of anti-tax voters.

However, these claims proved to be highly misleading. For one thing, as Cohen points out, the amount of money that lottery profits can actually raise for a state is fairly limited. Lottery revenues cover only a few line items of the state budget, typically education or other government services that are popular and nonpartisan—like elder care, public parks, and aid for veterans. Additionally, as with most commercial products, lottery sales are highly responsive to economic fluctuation; in fact, they tend to increase during recessions and when poverty or unemployment rates are rising.