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In the early American colonies, lotteries played a big role in funding everything from roads to churches to canals and bridges. By the seventeen-forties, they had even helped finance Harvard and Yale, though that may have been partly a matter of exigency: colonial America was defined politically by its aversion to taxes, but it also grew poorer and more desperate for revenue.
But the growing popularity of the lottery coincided with a major shift in Americans’ expectations about the future. As incomes fell, unemployment soared and the old national promise that hard work would enable everyone to better their parents became less credible, it became more difficult for states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services.
The result, Cohen argues, was that the lottery became “an instrument of political manipulation.” Its proponents launched an astonishingly effective campaign to sway public opinion, one that inflated how much lottery proceeds could boost education spending, for example. In California, where a high-profile campaign succeeded in convincing voters that the lottery had been a boon for schools, the first year’s revenue actually accounted for only five per cent of all K-12 education funding.
In the nineteen-seventies, that figure rose as states turned to the lottery to fill in their budget holes. But, Cohen notes, the resulting surge in spending also coincided with a rise in inequality and a deepening sense of skepticism about the American dream.