In the beginning, lottery games were a major source of funding for public projects, from Boston’s Faneuil Hall to George Washington’s mountain road. Even the Founding Fathers played the numbers game—Franklin ran a lottery to raise money for the militia that ultimately defeated the French, while John Hancock ran a lottery for Boston’s City Hall. But the first wave of lotteries was brought to a screeching halt by widespread concern over crookedness—many of these early games were shady, and corrupt lottery officials often shipped tickets across state lines. By the time 1833 rolled around, most states had banned lotteries, and only the infamous Louisiana State Lottery Company remained in operation (Cohen notes that its charter was only recently renewed, after immense bribing).

The reason is simple: Lotteries are explicitly run as businesses, with their own sales agents who collect all money paid for tickets up through a hierarchy of levels until it’s “banked.” That means that even though the lottery might look like a great way to fund public services, it’s really just a way for states to make more money.

Some of that money goes to the lottery’s actual operating expenses, but most ends up in the coffers of state governments—a drop in the bucket overall, by some estimates, and a fraction of total state revenues. In fact, it’s a bit of a paradox that state lotteries are still so popular and effective at bringing in money. The truth is that people just plain old like to gamble, and the official lottery is there to tap into that inextricable human impulse.