Official lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase tickets and hope to win a prize, usually money. It’s the largest form of state-regulated gambling in the United States, with players spending upward of $100 billion per year. During the post-World War II period, when many states were expanding their social safety nets and were facing increasing costs from the Vietnam War, state politicians were looking for ways to raise revenue without arousing public anger by hiking taxes on middle class and working class Americans. That’s when the lottery came into fashion.

Lottery proponents promised that lottery proceeds would float the entire budget of a state, freeing legislators from ever having to discuss the unpleasant subject of raising taxes. And they wildly exaggerated how much the lottery boosted state finances. In the first years of California’s lottery, for example, the money brought in by ticket sales covered only about five percent of its education budget.

The advocates of the lottery eventually began to focus less on a silver bullet for the budget and more on what the money could fund, invariably a popular and nonpartisan government service—most often education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or veteran aid. They also embraced the idea of multi-state lotteries, creating games that span more than one jurisdiction, and leveraging their size to increase jackpots.

Nevertheless, critics of the lottery still argue that it is morally and financially unjustified. Some, like devout Protestants, deem it unconscionable for the state to subsidize public services through gambling. Others, citing research showing that lottery players are disproportionately poor and Black or Latino, believe that the game preys on vulnerable citizens.