The Lottery – A Budgetary Miracle


The lottery is a game in which you know you’re not going to win—except that, maybe, there’s a small sliver of hope that you will. It’s an ugly exercise that underscores our reliance on chance and the sense that, even when it’s your last, best or only shot at a new life, there’s always a way out.

Lottery has been around forever—it was common in the Roman Empire, for example, and can be found throughout the Bible, where lots were used to determine everything from who would get a job to who should keep Jesus’s garments after his Crucifixion. In the early American era, lotteries were sometimes used as a kind of statewide tax, with proceeds benefiting everything from church-built colleges (Harvard and Yale among them) to public parks and highway construction. But, as Cohen writes, in the late nineteenth century and twentieth centuries, states began looking for alternatives to raising taxes that wouldn’t anger a population increasingly defined by its aversion to them.

That’s when lottery became a “budgetary miracle,” she says, an alternative source of revenue for state governments that allowed them to expand services without alienating voters. Instead of arguing that a state’s lottery profits could float the entire budget, advocates began pitching it as a source of funding for one particular line item—usually education, but also elder care and veterans assistance. This refocused argument was more persuasive and, Cohen notes, amounted to a repackaging of the long-standing ethical objections against gambling: essentially, since people were going to gamble anyway, why not let the state make money off of it?