The Evolution of the Official Lottery

In 1967, the New York Lottery was born. Since its inception, over 34 billion dollars have been generated in aid to education. It is currently one of the largest and most established state lotteries in the United States. The lottery continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of its customers and their communities, while maintaining its mission to support education.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery took off in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Thanks to population growth, inflation and the cost of a war on Vietnam, state governments found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. In a desperate bid to find solutions that would not enrage their anti-tax electorates, they began turning to lottery games again.

Across America, state lottery commissions rebranded their games by advertising them as a civic duty, claiming that buying a ticket is a “good deed.” These campaigns were extremely effective—but also fundamentally misleading. For one thing, they wildly inflated the impact of lottery revenue on state finances. In California, for example, the first year of a lottery initiative’s existence, lottery income accounted for about five percent of all state education spending.

Lotteries are a business, and the business model is built around addicting players. To that end, everything about them—from the ads to the look of tickets to the math behind their prizes—is designed to keep people coming back. It’s not that different from what tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers do.