The official lottery has its roots in colonial America. The Puritans, a group that regarded gambling as a dishonor to God, used it as a way of raising money to pay for ships to the Jamestowncolony in Virginia. But in the modern era, lotteries really started to boom after 1964, when growing awareness of the massive sums that could be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. By the nineteen-sixties, fueled by population growth, inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War, many states found themselves running on empty. The states that offered large social safety nets found it particularly challenging to balance their budgets without either hiking taxes or cutting services, both of which were unpopular with voters.

During this time, New Hampshire, which was famously tax averse, adopted the first state lottery of the modern era. Thirteen more did so within a few years. For legislators facing this fiscal crunch, the lottery seemed to be a budgetary miracle, allowing them to make revenue appear almost magically out of thin air, Cohen writes.

Supporters of the lottery often argue that players simply enjoy playing the game, that it is a form of entertainment that is inextricably linked to our inborn desire for instant wealth. But the fact is, lottery sales increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises and poverty rates climb. The reason is that lottery advertising is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods populated by poor, Black and Latino residents. In addition, super-sized jackpots help drive lottery sales. In fact, they are so huge that they can generate a flood of free publicity on news sites and TV shows.