Lottery games are the most popular gambling ventures in the world, with jackpots frequently reaching the billions. In the United States, state lotteries are operated independently but often collaborate to create games with larger geographic footprints and thus higher jackpots. While the games are often perceived as charitable, critics contend that they impose a disproportionate burden on low-income and minority groups.

Cohen’s book traces the origin of these state-sponsored lotteries, which in America began in the seventeenth century as a way to raise money for town halls and other public projects. By the mid-nineteenth century, growing awareness of how much money could be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding: booming populations and rising inflation had combined to make balancing the budget difficult for many states. Raising taxes or cutting services was unpopular with voters, and the state governments looked for alternative revenue sources.

Historically, private citizens and public officials have staged lotteries to offer not just monetary prizes, but houses, land, slaves, and animals. During the American colonial period, these lottery games became popular in the colonies and helped to finance such public projects as roads, canals, ferries, and towns.

In 1967, New York established its first state-run lottery, with the slogan “Your Chance of a Lifetime to Help Education.” Since then, the game has raised more than $68 billion in ticket sales, and its proceeds continue to support schools. However, as Cohen shows, these advertising campaigns wildly inflated the impact of lottery proceeds on state funding.