The state lottery is a massive business, with jackpots that often reach billions of dollars. But what do we really know about who plays and why? On today’s On Point, historian Jonathan Cohen joins us to discuss his new book, For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America.
Cohen begins with a look at the history of the state lottery, starting in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of the big profits to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state revenue. As populations grew, inflation soared, and the cost of the Vietnam War rose, it became increasingly difficult to balance state budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.
A state lottery proved to be a very effective way to boost state revenues without triggering either of those outcomes, and it quickly won broad public approval. Lotteries remain popular to this day, though they have come under increased scrutiny for the ways they might affect social and economic inequality.
One issue has been how the game is marketed. Studies suggest that state-run lotteries tend to draw patrons from middle-income neighborhoods and disproportionately less from low-income areas. In addition, Cohen says, the ubiquity of state-run lottery games in poor communities has helped to fuel what he calls the “predatory logic” of the lottery, which encourages people to spend more than they can afford on tickets with little hope of winning. This, he says, is especially true of the most popular lottery game, which features daily numbers and requires patrons to purchase a minimum number of tickets each time they play.