The official lottery is a game of chance operated by a state government to raise funds for public benefit. Although there are some national lotteries, most states operate their own. State-run lotteries typically offer three-digit games akin to numbers games; four and five-digit games, which can be played in different combinations; instant tickets; and video lottery terminals. Some states also have a second tier of games, such as keno. While these games are marketed as entertainment, critics say they have serious consequences for the poor and working class.

The earliest lotteries in the modern sense of the word arose in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders with towns trying to raise money to fortify defenses or help the poor. The first European public lotteries to award money prizes began in 1476.

In the early American colonies, a variety of private and state-run lotteries were popular for raising “voluntary taxes.” Lottery abuses strengthened those in opposition to them and weakened their defenders, but before they were outlawed in 1826, they financed many projects, including the building of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and the American Museum. They also funded a battery of guns for the defence of Philadelphia and helped rebuild Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Cohen traces the modern era of lotteries in America to an extraordinary series of events that started in 1964, when New Hampshire, which was famously tax-averse, approved a state-run lottery. That coincided with a crisis in state funding, which grew acute in the nineteen-sixties as baby boomers grew into adulthood and the aging of the baby-boom generation put strains on state budgets that could not be met by either higher taxes or cuts to social services.