The lottery is a game of chance in which tickets are sold and prizes, usually money or goods, are awarded to ticket holders who match numbers drawn at random. It is often used as a means of raising funds for public projects or charities. During the eighteenth century, it was particularly popular in colonial America, where it helped finance roads, libraries, churches, canals, and bridges. It also played a major role in the financing of private and public ventures during the Revolutionary War, including the foundation of Princeton, Columbia, and Yale Universities, as well as the Continental Congress’s expedition against Canada.

Lotteries were a common practice in the ancient world—Nero was a fan—and are found throughout the Bible, where the casting of lots was used for everything from determining who would keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion to assigning kingship to Israel. Lottery was brought to America by British colonists, and its popularity spread across the country, despite the fact that many religious people decried it as immoral and corrupt.

Advocates of legalization argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well collect taxes on those bets. But that argument had limits; as Cohen points out, lottery sales rise as unemployment and poverty rates increase, while the profits are disproportionately sucked up by neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly Black or Latino. And the system is inherently skewed: The money you hand lottery retailers gets added to the pot and then, after the retailer and the lottery office take their cut, goes toward state government coffers, which typically spend the proceeds on education and gambling addiction programs.