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While state-run lotteries are now common across the United States, Cohen’s argument centers largely around the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As population growth and inflation accelerated, state governments found that they could no longer balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which proved highly unpopular with voters.
Lotteries offered a way out of this dilemma, drawing in funds for everything from civil defense to road building. But critics questioned the morality of government-sanctioned gambling and the amount of money that states stood to gain from the enterprise. These opponents hailed from all political stripes and all walks of life, but some of the most vocal were devout Protestants, who viewed state-sanctioned lotteries as sinful.
By the nineteenth century, the majority of states banned lotteries, but a few continued to operate them illegally. In 1860, all but three states—Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky—outlawed them completely.
After a century of bans and prohibitions, New Hampshire approved the first modern state lottery in 1964. New York, Florida, and other high-income states soon followed suit, giving birth to the national lottery.
Each lottery varies somewhat, but most now offer a mix of instant tickets (similar to scratch-offs) and a variety of drawn games, including three-digit and four-digit number games; five-number games; keno; and video lottery terminals. Most also have a progressive jackpot, meaning that the top prize will grow every time there is no winner.
The popularity of lottery games has led to the rise of multi-state lotteries, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, which combine ticket sales from several jurisdictions to create larger jackpots. Nevertheless, the majority of state lotteries are independent and do not participate in multi-state games.
The ubiquity of lottery games has had profound effects on society, from how people choose their careers to how they view government spending. In the end, Cohen argues that lottery revenue is “disruptive and harmful,” especially in its effect on low-income communities and those who are least likely to play. Ultimately, he urges that lotteries be abolished—though he concedes that no state has yet done so. “For a Dollar and a Dream” is a thoughtful, well-researched argument that has the potential to change how we think about lotteries. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of democracy in America.