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In his book “The State of Lotteries,” Cohen argues that the modern state lottery was born of necessity. In the nineteen-sixties, he writes, growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with state funding crises. With populations expanding, inflation rising and the cost of the Vietnam War escalating, states could no longer balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.
So they turned to the lottery, a revenue source they knew citizens would embrace. It was, they figured, the least disruptive way to raise money and it offered them an alternative to raising taxes. It’s not quite that simple, though.
Lottery proceeds have been used to finance a wide variety of state projects and programs, including building and repairing roads, canals, ferries, bridges and the city halls of Philadelphia and Boston. They’ve also helped to fund Harvard, Yale and Princeton, as well as the Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin even ran a lottery to help fund the creation of a militia to fight the French in 1748 and John Hancock ran one to help rebuild Faneuil Hall.
But despite all this, many studies have found no evidence that lottery games are effective at fighting crime or reducing social mobility. And while people love to gamble, the numbers game is not a magic bullet that cures all ills and will certainly not solve our economic problems.