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Lottery proceeds help fund public K-12 education across New York State.

In a country defined politically by its aversion to taxation, the lottery proved to be an effective way for states to raise money, Cohen writes. It became particularly appealing during a time of fiscal crisis, starting in the nineteen-sixties, when America faced high inflation and the cost of Vietnam. In addition, a growing population and expanding social safety net meant that states were spending more money than they could collect in taxes.

It is also true that people simply like to gamble. “There’s an inextricable human impulse to do that,” says Matheson, the historian. It’s the same reason that casinos attract customers, and why he feels it is so hard for state legislators to argue against a lottery.

While there are legitimate concerns about a lottery’s effect on society, most of the criticism is driven by a desire to preserve the notion that gambling is a morally neutral activity that ought not to be heavily regulated. The fact is, lottery revenues are inefficiently collected and, when compared to the size of most state budgets, a relatively small proportion of lottery earnings end up in actual government coffers. That’s a big problem when you are talking about a system that can generate $502 billion in ticket sales over the course of one hundred years.