The official lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase chances to win money or other prizes. It is usually run by a state or other sovereign body, with a set prize structure and rules for play.

The first modern government-run lotteries began in the fourteen-hundreds, when towns in Burgundy and Flanders raised money to fortify their defenses or aid the poor. By the seventeen-hundreds, the practice had spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered a national lottery in 1567.

Advocates of lotteries often argue that, despite their regressive nature, they are an effective alternative to taxation. But a comparison of state budgets and incomes shows that lottery revenues are only a drop in the bucket. They may help subsidize a few high-profile projects, but that is about it.

What’s more, as Cohen notes, lottery sales fluctuate with economic cycles, increasing when incomes fall and unemployment rises and declining when poverty rates are high or wages low. And, like all commercial products, lottery ads are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

Even so, advocates of lotteries have succeeded in promoting the myth that they make a difference in public services. Thanks to years of noisy campaigning and decades of heavy promotion, the public now believes that schools and other vital services are lavishly supported by gambling funds. But those funds are actually a drain on the rest of the state’s finances, and they take a regressive toll on people who can least afford it.