Official lottery games have become a major source of revenue for state governments, especially in the United States. While most states run their own lotteries, some are members of consortiums that operate a few large multi-state games. These are primarily Powerball and Mega Millions, which feature jackpots that grow quickly because they draw players from all participating states. Other states have their own exclusive lotteries like New York’s Take5.

The idea of using a prize drawn by chance to raise money for public goods first appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century. By the sixteenth, it had spread to England, where it became a common method of financing town fortifications and other civic projects. It also made its way to America, where it fueled European settlement in the American colonies despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling and numbers games.

But critics worried both about the ethics of funding public services through gambling and about how much states actually stood to gain. For example, devout Protestants viewed lotteries as morally unconscionable and were a consistent bloc of opposition. On the other hand, Catholics embraced it and reliably supported state lotteries.

For some politicians facing such budget crises, lottery games provided a chance to boost spending on public goods without enacting taxes and risking punishment at the polls. The appeal of the lottery as a “budgetary miracle” became clearer in the nineteen-sixties, when population growth, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War put enormous strain on state coffers. For the first time in many decades, balancing state budgets required either raising taxes or cutting services—both options deeply unpopular with voters.