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In the United States, state-run lotteries became common in the nineteenth century. They were seen as an alternative to taxes, which were viewed by many voters as immoral. Cohen points out that, in this context, the “relatively moral appeal of a lottery,” which promised a small prize to anyone who paid a modest fee for a chance to win, came at a time when America was suffering from a “tax revolt” that led to the decline of federal revenue for state governments.

Lottery officials portrayed the state-run games as “budgetary miracles,” able to make money appear seemingly out of thin air, and thereby freeing politicians from having to raise taxes or cut services. The strategy worked, at least for a while. Lotteries generated billions in profits for private promoters and helped the states balance their budgets. However, these benefits came at a price, as a growing share of lottery proceeds was being diverted away from the poorest states, which are still grappling with income inequality. The modern lottery is a complex phenomenon, and Cohen’s book makes a compelling case that it has contributed to the rise of inequality in America.