The Official Lottery

The lottery is a great way for governments to raise money without raising taxes, or at least without triggering a voter backlash. In the past, state lotteries played a role in financing public projects, from roads and canals to churches and colleges, says Cohen. Benjamin Franklin ran one to help buy cannons for Philadelphia; John Hancock held a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall; and George Washington used a lottery to finance a road across a Virginia mountain pass (though the tickets bear his signature, making them collectors items).

The modern lottery is based on numbers games. Players pick a series of numbers at random for the chance to win a prize, which can be cash or goods, depending on the game. Many of these games are offered at the state level; a handful operate national lotteries, such as Powerball and Mega Millions.

In some states, a lottery can be bought at stores and gas stations; in others, it can only be purchased via phone or online. Most have age restrictions and require a player to provide identification. Ticket purchases are recorded and monitored, with winning tickets being verified by an independent auditing firm.

Supporters of the lottery often cast it as a “tax on stupidity.” But as with most commercial products, lottery sales respond to economic fluctuations; Cohen notes that lotto revenue spikes when unemployment and poverty rates increase. And like all commercial goods, lottery advertising tends to be disproportionately concentrated in poor, black, and Latino neighborhoods.