The earliest lottery records date back to the Low Countries in the 15th century, when town authorities held public lotteries to raise funds for everything from building walls and fortifications to aiding the poor. In the 1700s, America became, as Cohen writes, “a nation defined politically by its aversion to taxation.” Yet lotteries continued to thrive, with proceeds helping establish churches and towns as well as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War, but widespread complaints of mismanagement and crookedness finally brought this initial era of American lotteries to an end.

By the nineteen-sixties, as the cost of maintaining a social safety net increased, state governments found it increasingly difficult to balance budgets without either hiking taxes or cutting services. In this climate, lottery proponents hailed their innovations as budgetary miracles that could relieve lawmakers of the need to ever think about raising taxes.

Several states now offer a variety of games, including scratch-off tickets and video lottery terminals. Most also have keno and a recurring number game, such as New York’s Take5. But the most significant source of revenue continues to be the traditional drawing of numbers. And if the odds are right, one lucky player can win big, with jackpots reaching into the millions of dollars. As these prizes grow, more people are drawn to the game and more money is raised for public programs.